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Power risks loom in Japan with only one nuclear reactor online

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The No. 6 reactor at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa complex, the world's biggest nuclear power plant, has been shut down for maintenance by the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco), the operator of the Fukushima plant that suffered meltdowns, explosions and radiation leaks after the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami.

The shutdown leaves only one of Japan's 54 commercial nuclear reactors online after last year's devastating earthquake and tsunami.

That reactor, a unit at Hokkaido Electric Power Co.'s plant on Hokkaido in northern Japan, is also expected to be shut down in early May for scheduled maintenance work.

Possible power shortages

Japanese reactors are taken off line every 13 months for regular checks. However, with concerns over nuclear safety running high following the Fukushima crisis, none of the reactors that have been shut down for checks or were already offline at the time of the disaster have been allowed to restart.

The nuclear reactor shutdowns in Japan raise the possibility of power shortages across the nation as demand increases in the hot summer months.

Tepco president Toshio Nishizawa said the company was 'closely studying the summer power supply situation' and currently saw no problem. Others, however, are less sure.

Of the 17 reactors owned by Tepco, which provides electricity to some 45 million people in the Tokyo area, all six at its devastated Fukushima Daiichi plant are offline, as well as four at its neighboring Fukushima Daini plant.

At its Kashiwazaki Kariwa plant, three remain offline after a magnitude 6.8 earthquake struck the area in July 2007 and small fires followed. Four others are under maintenance.

Before the crisis, Japan depended on nuclear power for one-third of its electricity. The government hopes to restart reactors as soon as 'stress tests' prove they are safe.

The stress tests, similar to those used in France and elsewhere in Europe, are designed to assess how well the plants can withstand earthquakes, tsunamis, storms, loss of power and other crises.

Strong opposition to nuclear power

The timing for when any reactors will be restarted remains unclear, however.

Japan's government continues to face strong opposition to nuclear power. Local leaders, fearing a political backlash, are reluctant to give their approval.

Greenpeace Japan's executive director Junichi Sata said the country could survive without rushing to restart its nuclear sector. 'Japan is practically nuclear free, and the impact on daily life is invisible,' he said in a statement.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has promised to reduce Japan's reliance on nuclear power over time and plans to lay out a new energy policy by summer.

Meanwhile, Japan has temporarily turned to oil and coal generation plants to make up for the shortfall, and has called for power conservation.

Author: John Blau (Reuters, AP, AFP)
Editor: Shamil Shams

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