Fifty-three reactors down, one to go: Japan may have a nuclear-free summer

Japan is almost completely free of nuclear power now, after the shutdown on March 26, 2012 of the Number 6 reactor at the country’s Kashiwasaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant. No nuclear reactors are now operational on the Japanese mainland. When scheduled maintenance closes the Number 3 Tomari reactor on the island of Hokkaido on May 5 2012, all of Japan’s 54 reactors will be out of action. The country will be nuclear-free for the first time since 1966.

This is very encouraging news. And the impact on daily life for the people of Japan has been invisible. The Minister for Economy, Trade and Industry Yukio Edano has said there will be no restrictions on electricity use or any repeat of the rolling blackouts that happened last summer in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that caused the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

The power companies are cautiously optimistic as well. Asking people to use their energy efficiently, Tokyo Electric Power said in a statement, “for the electricity supply and demand in the foreseeable future, we expect to maintain stable supply.”

Tragically, the people of Japan have had to find out the hard way about the dangers of nuclear power. Fortunately, they are finding out about a nuclear-free future the easy way.

The Fukushima disaster has again proven that nuclear is not safe. Every day that passes with reactors offline proves decisively that nuclear power is not needed. All this has been done with management of electricity demand, energy efficiency measures, and more than enough backup generation in place. With no reasons or excuses for electricity shortages in the coming months - any blackouts that occur this summer will not be because of a lack of supply - there is absolutely no need to restart nuclear reactors. Considering the challenges the country has had to face since the terrible events of March 11 2011, this is a truly magnificent achievement.

Not only that but this situation in Japan is exposing the myth that nuclear power is vital in the fight against climate change. Despite the fact that most of the country’s nuclear reactors were not in operation in 2011, one study by climate NGO Kiko Network shows there was no net increase in greenhouse gas emissions in 2010-2011. In fact, the study shows that between April and December emissions actually fell. Another report by Japan’s Institute of Energy Economics shows a small increase of 2% which is much lower than some in the nuclear industry were warning and is amazing when you remember Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors were generating a third of the country’s electricity.

And so Japan has shown the rest of the world that it does not need to trust its future to a technology that threatens its economy, its environment, and its people. Will more countries follow in rejecting nuclear as Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium have all done recently? If not, why not? Nuclear-powered countries are out of excuses for wasting precious time, energy and resources on their reactors.

The Economist, long a proponent of nuclear power, is now openly questioning its economics as well, calling nuclear power ‘a dream that failed’. Without taxpayer support by way of subsidies and liability exemptions, the nuclear industry will collapse.

What’s needed now is a rapid switch to renewable energy and energy efficiency. It can start right now. Today. It’s just what a world still in the grip of a financial crisis and facing catastrophic climate change needs. A global push for renewables can provide the economic boost, the security of energy supplies, and the cut to greenhouse gas emissions desperately needed to create a stable, safe tomorrow for everyone.

Update on 29/03/12: We've added a parapgraph about greenhouse gas emissions.