Japan has closed one of its two remaining operational nuclear plants. The shutdown comes just days before the fifth anniversary of a catastrophic earthquake that triggered a tsunami and the biggest nuclear meltdown since Chernobyl.
On Wednesday, a Japanese court ordered the shutdown of Takahaka Nuclear Plant in western Japan, citing poor safety measures. This same plant was restarted back in January after it was shut down post-Fukushima, along with the rest of Japan’s nuclear reactors. The swift re-shutdown hints at just how divisive and worrying nuclear energy has becomein Japan.
The court said Takahaka’s reactors never should have been rebooted in the first place, citing “points of concern in accident prevention, emergency response plans and the formulation of earthquake models.” The reboot was problematic:a mere week afterwards, radioactive water started leaking from a pipe at the facility, while one reactor suddenly shut down with no explanation, the New York Times reports.
Of the 43 nuclear reactors in Japan, only two at that one remaining plant are still operational: they’re at Kyushu Electric Power’s Sendai plant, on the southern tip of the archipelago. It was restarted back in August.
On March 11, 2011, a 9.0-earthquake (the strongest in Japan’s recorded history) struck 40 miles off Japan. The Ring of Fire-straddling country is used to seismic activity, but nothing like this. It resulted in over 15,000 deaths, and the follow-up tsunami decimated the Fukushima Daiichi plant on the nation’s east coast. The meltdown’s cleanup is expected to take 40 years.
Two years later, the government ordered a nationwide shut down of all nuclear operations and started rolling out more rigorous safety standards, which only a few reactors have since been able to meet. Last August, reactors started going back online. Wednesday’s court order is particularly worrying because it’s the first time a reactor that was restarted post-Fukushima was shut back down again.
Japan is a rather small, mountainous country that’s always been short of natural resources on its own. It’s the biggest importer of natural gas in the world. That’s why the alternative of homegrown nuclear was always so attractive—before Fukushima.
But among widespread public protest, Wednesday’s court ruling might be a welcome development among citizens who fear another megaquake and meltdown. Nuclear is a clean and powerful energy source, sure—but when it comes to power plants, Mother Nature can make this manmade fuel a very dangerous thing.