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Asia's nuclear dilemma

Nuclear power has long been opposed on safety, environmental, security and business grounds. But Asian governments are saying they can't fight global warming without more of it.

Even those cuts only get Japan to 92 percent of 1990 emissions levels, still far away from Hatoyama's target.

"We think nuclear power plants are essential to combat climate change, because nuclear power doesn't emit any carbon dioxide," said Tada.

The prime minister agrees. On March 7, according to the Japan Times, he told reporters: "Although nuclear power presents problems of waste and safety, it is my understanding that it is an essential energy for saving the global climate and reducing carbon dioxide," remarks that
promptly drew criticism from a staunchly anti-nuclear junior coalition partner.

Japan wants to boost nuclear power's proportion of total electricity generation to 40 percent in 2020, up from roughly 30 percent today, by building new nuclear plants and raising capacity at existing reactors. It wants another 10 percent of electricity to come from other zero-emissions sources such as wind and solar.

Tada said nuclear power has the advantage of being far cheaper than renewables: 4.8 to 6.2 yen (about five to seven cents) per kilowatt hour, compared to 10 to 14 yen/kwh for wind power, and 46 yen/kwh for solar. Renewables are just too expensive to be a bigger part of Japan's energy diet in the near future.

Nuclear not the answer: activists

Philip White, of the Tokyo-based Citizens' Nuclear Information Center, disputed those figures. "Renewable energies like wind and solar are not too expensive," wrote White in an email. "Wind is cheaper than nuclear now. Solar will soon be cheaper when economies of scale and the associated development advances get operating."

He says energy sources should be compared based on the retail cost to the consumer, since some renewable energies can be produced on-site, for example with rooftop solar panels. By those calculations, renewables are more competitive.

Activists like White cite studies pointing out nuclear power's shaky business model, such as this report on nuclear power in the UK, or a study from MIT that concluded that the drawbacks of reprocessing spent fuel outweigh the benefits.  (Japan hopes to begin reprocessing its own spent nuclear fuel this year.)

"Renewables are a realistic replacement for fossil fuels at this point," White insisted. "Nuclear energy is an obstacle to solving problems associated with climate change."

Veteran anti-nuclear activist Makoto Kondo agrees. He disputes the notion that nuclear is a "clean" energy source, pointing out that parts of the nuclear generation process, such as mining uranium for fuel, do produce CO2. And he insists nuclear power is a risky gamble, especially in a country like Japan that's prone to frequent earthquakes.

One of the most recent big quakes, in 2007, toppled more than 100 barrels of nuclear waste at one plant, caused a fire and dumped 317 gallons of water with trace amounts of radioactive waste into the Sea of Japan.

Due to that and other accidents, as well as halts after falsifications of reports at other plants, Japan's nuclear fleet operated at only 58 percent of capacity in 2008, far below the 80 percent capacity assumed in government projections on emissions cuts.

"We need to develop more clean energy, not depend on nuclear energy," said Kondo. "This is the only way to fight global warming."

But Kondo admitted his longtime activism had had little impact. "I didn't do enough in the past 40 years," he said, shaking his head. "But I still hope we can stop nuclear generation some day. We can't give up."

Ambivalent island

By contrast with Japan, Taiwan's activists have successfully slowed, if not stopped, the island's nuclear expansion.