Japan to switch off nuclear power, may be some time before it’s on again

(Reuters) – Japan is set to be nuclear power-free, for just the third time in more than four decades, and with no firm date for re-starting an energy source that has provided about 30 per cent of electricity to the world’s third-largest economy.

Kansai Electric Power Co’s 1,180 MW Ohi No.4 reactor is scheduled to be disconnected from the power grid late today and then shut for planned maintenance. It is the only one of Japan’s 50 reactors in operation after the nuclear industry came to a virtual halt following the March 2011 Fukushima disaster.

Japan last went without nuclear power in May-June 2012 – the first shutdown since 1970 – a year after a massive earthquake and tsunami triggered reactor meltdowns and radiation leaks at the Fukushima facility. The country’s nuclear reactors provided close to a third of the electricity to keep the $5 trillion economy going before the Fukushima disaster, and utilities have had to spend billions of dollars importing oil, gas and coal to make up for the shortfall.

In 2011, Japan suffered its first trade deficit in more than three decades, and in July of this year it logged its third-biggest trade deficit on record, at 1.02 trillion yen ($10.5 billion), as a weak yen and rising oil prices made energy imports more expensive.

Several nuclear operators applied in July to re-start reactors under new rules drawn up following the Fukushima disaster, but approvals are likely to be tough to get as the industry regulator strives to show a skeptical public it is serious about safety.

Industry projections for a re-start vary from as early as December to mid-2014. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the utilities are keen to get reactors up and running again, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe singling out reducing soaring fuel costs as a key plank of his economic reform plans.

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