Thousands march in Tokyo as last atomic plant shuts

Activists celebrate as Japan is nuclear-free for first time in 42 years

Thousands marched through the streets of Tokyo yesterday to celebrate the closure of the last of Japan's 50 nuclear reactors. The switch-off meant the country, for the first time since 1970, was being electrified without the use of atomic power.

Japan has warned it could face power shortages without the use of nuclear technology, but marchers were insistent they did not want it put back on. They held banners shaped as giant fish – a symbol adopted in a series of anti-nuclear demonstrations in urban areas – as they marked the final reactor being switched off at the Tomari nuclear plant on the northern island of Hokkaido.

Officially, it is being checked for routine maintenance. But no reactors in Japan that have undergone the same safety surveys over the past 12 months have re-opened.

The tougher checks began after the catastrophic meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant following the 11 March quake and tsunami last year.

"Today is a historical day," shouted activist Masashi Ishikawa to a crowd gathered in a Tokyo park, some holding the "Koinobori" carp-shaped banners. "There are so many nuclear plants, but not a single one will be up and running today, and that's because of our efforts."

Campaigners said it was fitting that the day Japan stopped using nuclear power coincided with the nation's annual Children's Day, because of their concerns about protecting children from radiation, which Fukushima Dai-ichi is still releasing into the air and water.

Yoko Kataoka, a retired baker and grandmother in a T-shirt with "No thank you, nukes," handwritten on the back, said: "Let's leave an Earth where our children and grandchildren can all play without worries."

The government has, however, been eager to restart reactors, warning about blackouts and rising emissions as Japan is forced to turn to oil and gas. But the reactors must pass new tests to withstand quakes and tsunami, and, under the post-disaster safety plan, also need local residents' approval to restart.

The response from people living near the nuclear plants has been mixed, with some wanting them back in operation because of jobs, subsidies and other benefits to the local economy. Major protests have been generally limited to urban areas such as Tokyo.

Before the crisis, Japan relied on nuclear power for a third of its electricity needs.The crowd at the rally, estimated at 5,500 by organisers, shrugged off government warnings about a power shortage. Activists said the shutdowns had proved the country could live without nuclear technology.

Electricity shortage is expected only at peak periods, such as the middle of the day in hot weather, but critics of nuclear power say the proponents are exaggerating the consequences to win public approval to restart reactors.

Trade Minister Yukio Edano and three other ministers have been trying to win the support of communities to reactivate two idled reactors at Kansai Electric Power's Ohi nuclear plant to help ease possible power shortages of nearly 20 per cent in the coming hotter months. The two reactors are the first to be considered for reactivation by the central government, but public support remains a significant hurdle.

The last time Japan was nuclear-power-free was for five days to 4 May 1970, when the two reactors then existing were shut for maintenance, according to the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan.