Thousands of Japanese marched to celebrate the switching off of the last of their nation's 50 nuclear reactors on May 5, waving banners shaped as giant fish that have become a potent anti-nuclear symbol.
Japan was without electricity from nuclear power for the first time in four decades when the reactor at Tomari nuclear plant on the northern island of Hokkaido went offline for mandatory routine maintenance.
After last year's March 11 quake and tsunami set off meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, no reactor halted for checkups has been restarted amid public concerns about the safety of nuclear technology.
“Today marks the starting point for future generations,” economic critic Katsuto Uchihashi told an anti-nuclear energy rally, which was held in Tokyo. About 5,500 people attended, according to the organizer.
“The suspension of nuclear power generation today represents preparations for restarting nuclear reactors,” he said. “Without a transformation of our society, the day will not come when Japan can truly wean itself from nuclear power.”
Writer Keiko Ochiai said, “Let every one of us promise to keep on doing without nuclear power forever. We would like to make a fresh start from here.”
“Today is a historic day,'' Masashi Ishikawa shouted to the crowd, some holding traditional “koinobori'' carp-shaped banners for Children's Day that have become a symbol of the anti-nuclear movement.
“There are so many nuclear plants, but not a single one will be up and running today, and that's because of our efforts,'' Ishikawa said.
The activists said it is fitting that the day Japan stopped nuclear power coincides with Children's Day because of their concerns about protecting children from radiation, which the Fukushima No. 1 plant is still spewing into the air and water.
The government has been eager to restart nuclear reactors, warning about blackouts and rising carbon emissions as Japan is forced to turn to oil and gas for energy.
Japan now requires reactors to pass new tests to withstand quakes and tsunami and to gain local residents' approval before restarting.
The response from people living near nuclear plants has been mixed, with some wanting them back in operation because of jobs, subsidies and other benefits to the local economy.
The mayor of Tomari city, Hiroomi Makino, is among those who support nuclear power.
“There may be various ways of thinking but it's extremely regrettable,'' he said of the shutdown.
Major protests, like the one on May 5, have been generally limited to urban areas like Tokyo, which had received electricity from faraway nuclear plants, including the Fukushima No. 1 plant.
Before the nuclear crisis, Japan relied on nuclear power for a third of its electricity.
The crowd at the anti-nuclear rally shrugged off government warnings about a power shortage. If anything, they said, with the reactors going offline one by one, it was clear the nation didn't really need nuclear power.
A citizens organization calling for blocking restarts of two reactors at the Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture ended a 19-day hunger strike in front of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.
Taro Fuchigami, who heads the organization, said, “We will count the number of days when no electricity generated by nuclear power is used until all nuclear reactors are gone.”
Whether Japan will suffer a sharp power crunch is still unclear.
Electricity shortages are expected only at peak periods, such as the middle of the day in hot weather, and critics of nuclear power say proponents are exaggerating the consequences to win public approval to restart reactors.
Hokkaido Electric Power Co. spokesman Hisatoshi Kibayashi said the shutdown was completed late on May 5.
The Hokkaido Tomari plant has three reactors, but the other two had been halted earlier. Before March 11 last year, the nation had 54 nuclear reactors, but four of the six reactors at Fukushima No. 1 plant are being decommissioned because of the disaster.
Yoko Kataoka, a retired baker who was dancing to the music at the rally waving a small paper carp, said she was happy the reactor was being turned off.
“Let's leave an Earth where our children and grandchildren can all play without worries,'' she said, wearing a shirt that had, “No thank you, nukes,'' handwritten on the back.
The last time Japan was nuclear power-free was for five days to May 4, 1970, when the two reactors then existing were shut for maintenance, according to the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan.
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