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Despite protests, Japan switches on first nuclear reactor since Fukushima diaster

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TOKYO — Japan switched on a nuclear reactor Tuesday on the southern island of Kyushu, marking a first, tentative return to nuclear energy following the catastrophic meltdowns at Fukushima four years ago.

The reactor is the first to be restarted under strict new regulations governing safety at nuclear power plants in this earthquake-prone nation, and its operation advances a key goal of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

At 10:30 a.m. local time Tuesday, workers at Kyushu Electric Power Co.’s Sendai plant pulled the control rods out of Reactor 1, triggering nuclear fission for the first time since the reactor was taken offline in May 2011, Kyodo news agency reported from the scene. The reactor is expected to start generating power by Friday, and the plant’s second reactor is set to be turned on in October.

“We prioritize safety more than anything,” Abe told reporters the day before the restart. “Based on the harsh experience of Fukushima, we will not restart any plants unless they are approved as they meet the world’s strictest standards.”

After a devastating earthquake and tsunami caused a triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on the east coast in March 2011, Japan idled all nuclear reactors around the country while it conducted safety checks and drew up strict new regulations.

A protester shouts slogans during an anti-nuclear rally in front of Prime Minister’s official residence in Tokyo. (Shizuo Kambayashi/AP)
This led to skyrocketing electricity prices as Japan had to import oil and gas for energy, further straining public finances and family budgets. Household electricity bills rose by a whopping 25 percent in the four years to March, Kyodo reported, citing government data.

As he tries to kickstart Japan’s economy, Abe has been promoting a return to nuclear power as a critical way to boost growth and help Japan become more efficient.

Tuesday’s move paves the way for the other 42 workable reactors to come back online, although safety inspections and legal challenges may delay that process. Only five reactors at three sites have been cleared for restart under the new rules, and a court blocked one of them.

With memories of the Fukushima disaster, the world’s worst nuclear accident after Chernobyl, still fresh, polls show that a majority of Japanese oppose a return to an energy source they consider unsuitable for such seismic islands.

Protestors gather on a daily basis at an intersection near government ministries in Tokyo, and they have been rallying outside the heavily-guarded plant for several days in Kyushu in an anticipation of Tuesday’s restart.

“I cannot understand why operations are resuming,” Tatsuya Yoshioka, director of Peace Boat, which organized the rally, said Monday, according to the Asahi newspaper.

Protesters at the plant, at the very southern tip of mainland Japan, included Naoto Kan, who was prime minister during the Fukushima disaster.

The Fukushima disaster forced the evacuation of more than 160,000 people from the area, parts of which remain radioactive zones. Tens of thousands of people continue to live in temporary housing and will never be able to return to their homes.

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