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Typhoon Tests Japan’s Nuclear Resolve

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A roof is being built over the Unit 3 reactor building of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in the Fukushima prefecture, northeastern Japan by the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) to protect the plant against damage from Typhoon Ma-On. TEPCO / EPA

UPDATE: Typhoon Ma-On has been downgraded to a tropical storm. It is expected to move over central Japan today, hitting south of Tokyo before moving out to sea, according to the U.S. Navy. At least one person was reported missing and dozens injured after the storm landed in Japan on Tuesday.

The smiling faces of the young Japanese women who took home the World Cup title on Sunday are plastered over hundreds of media outlets across the world, and deservedly so. But just two days after that epic victory, the country was forced to recall an epic tragedy, when Typhoon Ma-On, a tropical storm with a 450 mi. diameter, touched down on the country’s southeastern coast, threatening heavy rain, thunderstorms, flooding and gale-force winds –  just about everything Japan doesn’t need in the wake of the devastating tsunami that struck its coast last spring.

The typhoon is moving quickly north- and eastward, with sustained winds and gusts speeding along at 87 and 100 mph respectively. And quite a lot of that predicted rain – over 50mm, or 2 inches – has already hit Shikoku and Honshu islands. It’s still anyone’s guess whether or not the typhoon will lead to another national disaster — the most intense rainfall and strongest convection is still over the open ocean, and convection may be weakening because of warming cloud top temperatures and the movement of dry air.

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But that doesn’t mean the country shouldn’t be taking precautions: a typhoon like Ma-On could be a huge blow to Japan not just because of the potential destruction that could result, but also through the looming threat, again, to the country’s nuclear infrastructure.  It was a tsunami that wiped crippled the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station and a typhoon can  produce surges of water that are equally damaging.

For now, it looks like Japan is taking at least some steps to steel itself for the possible foot of rain Ma-On could bring: Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) began installing a cover on Sunday for a building at the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi plant. The cover will be there “momentarily,” according to TEPCO spokesman Hajime Motojuku in The Japan Times, adding that TEPCO has also detached a hose from a barge located near the plant that contains contaminated water, thus preventing rainwater from increasing contamination levels as the typhoon hits.

But is that enough? And what’s protecting the other 50 nuclear reactors around Japan? “They should always be doing more, but the supply of skilled workers is limited,” Yale University political science assistant professor Jun Saito said in an email. What’s more, the shattered Fukushima plant may be so far gone that “insulating the facilities from the typhoon will be impossible,” according to Saito.

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If nothing else, the one-two punch of a tsunami and a typhoon may hasten Japan’s much called-for abandonment of nuclear power, a tall order, admittedly, in a country that already gets 30% of its electricity from its nuclear reactors and before Fukushima was planning to go up to 50% by 2030. Last week Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan said in a news conference that the country should shift away from and eventually eliminate its reliance on nuclear energy because of the “magnitude of the risks involved … We should reduce our dependence in a planned and gradual way, and in the future we should aim to get by with no nuclear energy,” he said.

It is still unclear whether this is going to happen, given Kan’s unpopularity, the  magnitude of the energy conversion  and the special interests that are bound to be offended. “People would think that reducing dependence on nuclear is a good thing to do, but they are not sure if Kan is the right person who can make this happen,” Saito said. “Since the iron triangle of power companies, manufacturers  and METI [the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry] is still in favor of rebuilding the Japanese nuclear industry, I would be reluctant to make predictions about  which direction Japan is heading.” Difficult though the shift away from nukes may be, there are only so many disasters a country should be forced to withstand. A single Fukushima is a disaster. A second would be inexcusable.

Tara Thean is a TIME contributor. Find her on Twitter at @TaraThean. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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