Many Japanese have grown uneasy with nuclear power since the March 11 tsunami, which left more than 20,000 dead or missing and sent a plant in Fukushima into meltdown. Anti-nuke protesters took to the streets, and a heated debate ensued over the future of atomic energy. A recent Associated Press-GfK poll found that 55 percent of Japanese want to reduce the number of reactors in the country.
Six months later, though, the nation seems to be sticking with nuclear power, at least for now. Unlike Germany, which accelerated plans to phase out atomic energy after Fukushima, Japan shows no signs of doing so. In recent days, utilities began newly mandated earthquake and tsunami stress tests, a first step toward restarting reactors idled for maintenance.
The world’s third-largest economy lacks other sources such as coal. An island nation, it can’t easily buy electricity from neighbors, as Germany can from France. Alternative energy is expensive. And nuclear technology is the nation’s pride, even a lucrative export. Moreover, consensus-oriented Japan doesn’t have an outspoken public saying “No” to nuclear power. In a society that frowns upon defiance of the government, many Japanese are reluctant to join a movement that is often discredited as eccentric, even after Fukushima. That means Japan’s leaders have no real need to reject an industry that has helped fuel the country’s prosperity for decades.
March 11 may yet prove to be Japan’s Three Mile Island moment. No new plants have been approved in the U.S. since the 1979 disaster, and Japan has canceled two new ones already and shelved plans to increase its reliance on nuclear power from 30 to 50 percent. [But]
Power shortages since the tsunami, coupled with an unusually sweltering summer, have helped business and its backers in government win the argument that Japan can’t afford to shut down its reactors. The nuclear industry also benefits from close government ties. Bureaucratic ranks are packed with former utility executives. The same ministry both promotes and regulates nuclear power. Such relationships have endured, despite revelations of past cover-ups of radiation leaks and safety violations.
In the half year since the tsunami, commuter trains have often been dark inside, dizzyingly hot and more packed than usual because of reduced schedules. Neon lights disappeared from once-glitzy urban landscapes. Messages flashed on the Internet and electronic billboards, ominously warning about electricity use versus supply. Manufacturers scrambled to cope. For automakers, the juggling included running assembly plants over the weekend and closing Thursday and Friday to reduce peak demand. “It has been totally exhausting,” said Toshiyuki Shiga, chief operating officer of Nissan Motor Co.
Before he resigned last month, Prime Minister Naoto Kan pledged to reduce Japan’s reliance on nuclear power and develop solar, wind and other sources. But he later played that down as his personal view and has since been replaced by Yoshihiko Noda, who is expected to be more willing to go along with industry-friendly bureaucrats.
Hiroshi Kainuma, a sociologist who has researched Fukushima, said residents of what he calls “nuclear villages” fear life without a plant. “Almost subconsciously, in their everyday, they have grown to support nuclear power,” he said.
Excerpts from YURI KAGEYAMA, Post-tsunami Japan sticking with nuclear power,Associated Press, Sept. 10, 2011