What Future Does Nuclear Power Have in Japan?

PHOTO: Japan: Resisting a Nuclear Comeback

Almost a year after the Fukushima disaster, 52 of Japan's 54 nuclear power plants have been shut down. The reactor explosion destroyed the population's trust in nuclear energy. But the atomic lobby -- and the country's industrial needs -- could block a possible phase-out.

An icy wind blows through the center of Rikuzentakata. Standing in front of the remains of his town hall, Mayor Futoshi Toba, 47, looks out on a scene of utter desolation. Only a few ruins of steel and concrete dot the landscape: a school, a hospital, a post office and a supermarket. Along the shoreline, four floodlight towers stand like ghostly sentinels. The sports arena that they once illuminated has been largely swallowed by the sea.

Almost one year ago, Toba stood on the same spot. The earth shook on the afternoon of March 11, 2011 -- and he would have preferred to immediately run home and check on his wife -- but he remained at his post. He wanted to bring to safety as many of his city's inhabitants as he could while a 14-meter (46-foot) tsunami wave was racing toward the coast.

Nearly one-tenth of the 23,000 inhabitants of Rikuzentakata died in the disaster. Entire city districts have been transformed into a muddy, gray mire.

Bulldozers have formed a number of piles from the rubble and debris left by the tsunami. For nearly a year now, the survivors have been clearing away the remains of their city -- and meticulously separating wood, concrete, electrical scrap and wrecked cars.

The earthquake and subsequent tsunami claimed the lives of some 20,000 people, including Toba's wife Kumi. And yet, to this day, the memory of this tragedy is overshadowed by another disaster -- the nuclear accident at Fukushima Daiichi. Tens of thousands of people have since had to be evacuated from the contaminated region.

An Energy Crisis

Fukushima has significantly changed everyday life in Japan. Nevertheless, it appears that the island nation will also collectively meet this challenge with the same discipline and stoicism with which it has endured its gradual economic decline over the past two decades.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who replaced the hapless crisis manager Naoto Kan in September, has already drawn an initial line under the ordeal: In December, he announced that the stricken reactors at Fukushima have "reached a state of cold shutdown, so the accident is now under control."

That's what the government in Tokyo would like everyone to believe, and it's particularly the view held by the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), which decides on the operation and decommissioning of nuclear power plants.

But, in reality, Japan is in the throes of an energy policy crisis the likes of which no modern industrialized nation has ever faced.

Indeed, 52 of the country's 54 nuclear reactors have been shut down. Since the disaster, one power plant after the other has been subjected to stress tests and repairs. Yet, in many cases, the deadlines that were established for this work have been overrun.

An Abrupt Change of Course

This is an eye-opener for people around the world: Japan, which has heavily relied on nuclear power for decades, is in the process -- albeit unwillingly -- of eliminating its atomic energy sector. But, in stark contrast to Germany, where German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for an historic transition to renewable energy after the Fukushima disaster, the Japanese phase-out is largely taking place without political debate.

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