THE LIGHTS ARE not going off all over Japan, but the nuclear power plants are. Of the 54 reactors in those plants, with a combined capacity of 47.5 gigawatts (GW, a thousand megawatts), only two are operating today. A good dozen are unlikely ever to reopen: six at Fukushima Dai-ichi, which suffered a calamitous triple meltdown after an earthquake and tsunami on March 11th 2011 (pictured above), and others either too close to those reactors or now considered to be at risk of similar disaster. The rest, bar two, have shut down for maintenance or “stress tests” since the Fukushima accident and not yet been cleared to start up again. It is quite possible that none of them will get that permission before the two still running shut for scheduled maintenance by the end of April.
Japan has been using nuclear power since the 1960s. In 2010 it got 30% of its electricity from nuclear plants. This spring it may well join the ranks of the 150 nations currently muddling through with all their atoms unsplit. If the shutdown happens, it will not be permanent; a good number of the reactors now closed are likely to be reopened. But it could still have symbolic importance. To do without something hitherto seen as a necessity opens the mind to new possibilities. Japan had previously expected its use of nuclear energy to increase somewhat. Now the share of nuclear power in Japan’s energy mix is more likely to shrink, and it could just vanish altogether.
In most places any foretaste of that newly plausible future will barely be noticed. Bullet trains will flash on; flat panels will continue to shine; toilet seats will still warm up; factories will hum as they hummed before. Almost everywhere, when people reach for the light switches in their homes, the lights will come on. But not quite everywhere. In Futaba, Namie and Naraha the lights will stay off, and no factories will hum: not for want of power but for want of people. The 100,000 or so people that once lived in those and other towns close to the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant have been evacuated. Some 30,000 may never return. The triple meltdown at Fukushima a year ago was the world’s worst nuclear accident since the disaster at Chernobyl in the Ukraine in 1986. The damage extends far beyond a lost power station.