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Reactor Revival
Japan Ready for a Nuclear Restart

A nuclear power facility in southern Japan got a preliminary greenlight from government regulators today, paving the way for the Sendai plant to restart its two reactors this fall. The country shut down its 54 reactors in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, but the Abe administration has been keen on reopening at least some of the shuttered facilities. The FT reports:

The decision by the Nuclear Regulation Authority, announced on Wednesday, could allow the plant’s owner to restart the facility’s two idled reactors as early as this autumn and set the stage for a broad, though not unlimited, comeback for nuclear power in Japan, where no atomic facility is presently producing electricity.

This isn’t a popular move in Japan, where the majority of people would not like to see a nuclear restart. But it reflects the island country’s desperation for domestic energy sources. Before the Fukushima disaster, nuclear reactors supplied some 30 percent of the country’s energy needs, and in the wake of their shutdown, imports of liquified natural gas (LNG) have replaced 44 percent of that slice of the pie. LNG is very expensive in Asia, so there’s an economic rationale for a nuclear restart in addition to the energy security angle.

That said, the Japanese public’s trepidation is eminently understandable. Japan sits along a number of tectonic faults, making it prone to both earthquakes and tsunamis. Moreover, it lies on the western arm of the so-called “Ring of Fire,” a chain of volcanoes on the rim of the Pacific Ocean. And, in an unfortunately-timed development for the Abe Administration, a new study found this week that the 2011 earthquake that led to the Fukushima disaster has put stress on Mt. Fuji, pushing it into a “critical state.” The Guardian has more:

The Tohoku – or Great East Japan – earthquake on 11 March 2011 triggered a devastating tsunami, which in turn caused the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. According to a Franco-Japanese study published by Science, the magnitude-9 tremor also increased the pressure on Mount Fuji. “Our work does not say that the volcano will start erupting, but it does show that it’s in a critical state,” says Florent Brenguier, a researcher at the Institute of Earth Sciences (IST) in Grenoble, France, and lead author of the publication, to which the Institute of Global Physics (IPG) in Paris also contributed.

Nuclear energy has an important role to play in meeting future energy demand, both because it can provide steady, reliable baseload energy, and because it can do so without emitting greenhouse gases (though you won’t hear many environmentalists touting it in their policy recommendations). But, as we saw in 2011, when it goes wrong, it can go really wrong, and governments must therefore take great pains to manage risks, and site these facilities intelligently. The unfortunate fact is that, despite the country’s great need for domestic energy supplies, you’d be hard pressed to find a worse place to site nuclear power plants. Here’s to hoping the country’s regulators don’t let demand blind them to the risks of the supply.

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