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Japan's nuclear love affair turns sour

Prime Minister Naoto Kan is steering the country away from nuclear power, but how far is he prepared to go?

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A teddy bear and a doll found in the debris sit at the side of a road in the tsunami-devastated city of Rikuzentakata, Iwate prefecture on May 7, 2011. (Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP/Getty Images)

TOKYO, Japan — Given recent events in Fukushima, it should come as no surprise that Japan's love affair with nuclear power has turned sour.

Yet even as work continued to stabilize the stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant weeks after the country's northeast coast was hit by a tsunami, the official emphasis was on safety improvements, not abandonment.

That was until Japan's beleaguered prime minister, Naoto Kan, announced two major policy shifts that, while not spelling the end of nuclear power, will dramatically reduce its role in providing energy to the world's third-biggest economy.

Japan's 54 reactors provide 30 percent of its electricity, and there were plans to increase that number to 50 percent by 2030. Policymakers now accept that goal is impossible in light of the Fukushima crisis, the world's most serious nuclear accident since Chernobyl. Instead, plans for 14 new plants, which would have taken Japan's reliance on nuclear to over 50 percent, have been effectively scrapped.

"We need to start from scratch," Kan said. "We need to make nuclear energy safer and do more to promote renewable energy."

“Renewables are becoming the reality. Even if solar and wind are more expensive, nuclear needs higher safety standards and liability coverage.”
~Tetsunari Iida, executive director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy

But Kan's nuclear disaffection only goes so far. He has made it clear that nuclear should be a part of Japan's energy mix, accompanied by safety improvements and more investment in renewable and natural energy.

At Fukushima Dai-ichi, there are causes for optimism and concern. Workers this week re-entered the plant's No. 1 reactor after radiation levels dropped, but adjustments to water gauges revealed worrying news about the state of the unit's fuel rods.

The plant's operator, TEPCO, said the rods had sustained more damage than previously thought, adding to concerns that the nuclear crisis could drag on for more than the six to nine months the firm said it needed to bring it under control.

The utility said that melted nuclear fuel had created holes at the bottom of the No. 1 reactor's pressure vessel, after confirming that water levels inside the troubled reactor were not high enough to cover the fuel rods.

But it added that the fuel, which is thought to have been fully exposed after the March 11 disaster, was being kept cool by water being injected into the water pressure vessel from outside.

As workers continue to surmise the damage done to fuel assemblies in three of Fukushima Dai-ichi's six reactors, Japan has been set on a new energy course that, for the first time in its postwar history, sees a reduced role for nuclear power.

That policy shift came after the government ordered the temporary closure of the Hamaoka nuclear plant, considered the country's most vulnerable nuclear facility because it sits directly above an active seismic fault line in a region where seismologists say there is an 87 percent chance of a powerful earthquake striking in the next 30 years.

The facility will remain shut while a 50-foot wall is built to protect it from a massive tsunami of the kind that knocked out vital cooling systems in Fukushima Dai-ichi's reactors — a job that could take up to three years.

Some experts believe the crisis has exposed the administrative malaise at the heart of Japan's nuclear industry, quite apart from its obvious threats to the health of those living near atomic complexes.

Tetsunari Iida, executive director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy, says the traditionally close ties between the nuclear industry, politicians and safety agencies — what he calls Japan's "nuclear village" — have hidden the true costs of atomic power plants.

"On the outside we are told it's very safe and cheap, but inside it's rubbish," he said. "That's the nature of the Japanese nuclear community."

The reality of Japan's nuclear program, according to Iida, comprises aging plants and the perennial problem of how to safely dispose of spent fuel.

"Renewables are becoming the reality," he said. "Even if in Japan solar and wind power are more expensive, nuclear needs higher safety standards and much higher liability coverage. And we have yet to come up with an answer to the question of where to store waste."

But Keiji Miyazaki, professor emeritus at Osaka University and a specialist in the study of severe accidents, said renewables did not represent an energy panacea.

"Nuclear power is indispensable for Japanese industry and for solving the energy growth and environmental protection," he said.

The Japanese public is divided. According to a recent poll, 40 percent of respondents said that the nation's dependence on nuclear power was unavoidable, while 41 percent supported a cut in the number of plants. Only 13 percent said the industry should be shut down altogether.

The Asahi Shimbun captured the public mood when it said: "The nuclear disaster triggered [by the earthquake] has completely destroyed public confidence in both the safety and cost effectiveness of nuclear power generation."

The newspaper welcomed attempts "to curb the predicted growth in electricity consumption that was used by the government as the main reason for promoting nuclear power generation. Saving electricity is an effective way to reduce Japan's dependence on nuclear power."

Even if TEPCO achieves cold shutdown by early next year, it could be years before the 41-year-old Fukushima Dai-ichi plant is decommissioned. Before then, the firm must also decide how to safely dispose of tons of contaminated water used to cool overheating reactors.