(TOKYO) — The operator of the Ohi Power Plant in western Japan restarted one of its reactors late Sunday night, ending Japan’s temporary freeze on nuclear power for the first time since the Fukushima nuclear disaster 15 months ago, despite widespread protests.
Kansai Electric Power Company, also known as KEPCO, began removing control rods from reactor no. 3 at 9 p.m. local time, and hoped to achieve criticality, a sustained nuclear fission chain reaction, by early Monday morning. The reactor is expected to begin transmitting power Wednesday, and could be operating at capacity in a week.
The country has been without nuclear power since May when the last of Japan’s 50 nuclear reactors was taken offline for scheduled maintenance.
The restart today came despite widespread opposition to nuclear power, in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011, when an earthquake and tsunami triggered meltdowns at 3 reactors. Radiation fallout from the accident forced more than 80,000 from their homes.
Saturday night, hundreds of protesters began gathering outside the gates of the Ohi Power plant in a last ditch effort to try and stop the reactor from going back online. Demonstrators blocked a road leading to the entrance to prevent workers from getting in, holding banners that read “Stop the restart.” They remained late Sunday night, even as word came that KEPCO had turned the switch back on.
In Tokyo, tens of thousands gathered outside the Prime Minister’s residence Friday night, in the biggest anti-nuclear protest to date.
Prime Minister Noda has aggressively pushed to restart idle reactors, saying that Japan faces a serious power shortage without them. While he favors reducing the country’s reliance on nuclear power over time, he has said eliminating them altogether would hurt the economy.
Yet, critics have questioned whether the government is acting too quickly, and ignoring the lessons of Fukushima. Earlier this week, 2 prominent seismologists said the government failed to take into account active fault lines near the Oi reactors, before giving the green light to bring them back online.
KEPCO, which provides power to Kansai, Japan’s second biggest urban region, plans to reactivate its No. 4 reactor at Ohi on July 14.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Andreas Preuss, CNN
Lorenzo Ferrigno, CNN
Susan Scutti, CNN