Japan began switching off the nation's last working nuclear reactor Sunday for a routine inspection, with no immediate plan to restart it due to to public hostility towards atomic power.
"The work started at 4:40 p.m.," said a spokesman for Kansai Electric Power Co (KEPCO), with the shutdown leaving the world's third largest economy without nuclear energy for the second time since the Fukushima crisis erupted in March 2011.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has openly supported the use of nuclear energy, but the public has remained largely opposed to it for fears of possible serious accidents.
Kansai Electric will gradually take offline the No. 4 reactor at its Oi nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture. The reactor is expected to stop power generation after several hours before coming to a complete stop early Monday, according to the utility.
Japan previously was without any nuclear energy in May 2012, when all of the country's 50 commercial reactors had stopped for scheduled checkups, with utilities unable to restart them due to public opposition.
It was the first time in more than four decades that Japan was without nuclear power.
Last year, government officials and utilities voiced concerns that Japan could experience major blackouts without nuclear power, particularly in the western region that relied heavily on nuclear energy.
Their fears proved to be unfounded but the government gave approval for Kansai Electric to restart No. 3 and No. 4 reactors at the Oi plant, arguing that nuclear energy was necessary to meet increased electricity demand during the winter.
The reactors were reactivated in July 2012 and resumed full commercial operation the following month, while other reactors have remained idled all along.
Japan has turned to fossil-fuel alternatives to fill the gap left by the shutdown of atomic plants, which had supplied about one-third of the resource-poor nation's electricity before the Fukushima disaster.
Utilities have raised power fees to cover increased fuel costs for thermal plants while reactors remain offline.© (C) 2013 AFP