What Future Does Nuclear Power Have in Japan?


The pragmatism with which the Japanese are surreptitiously ditching nuclear power underscores deep cultural differences with the Germans, who have a reputation for embracing ideological debates and taking a somewhat patronizing tone with the rest of the world. It's even possible that the Japanese could ultimately more radically convert their country into a nuclear-free zone -- just as they became the world champions of energy-efficient technologies following the oil crisis in the early 1970s.

Until last year, such a change in direction seemed unthinkable. At the time, Japan met nearly one-third of its energy needs with nuclear power. Tokyo was planning to build 14 additional nuclear power plants by 2030.

Even today, Japan is still not officially talking about phasing out nuclear power. Genpatsu mura -- literally, the "atomic village," as the unholy alliance of companies and sponsored media are known in Japan -- has not yet capitulated. The pro-nuclear lobby has merely ducked for cover.

Prime Minister Noda is pushing for all reactors that have passed the stress test to be quickly put back online. Although he plans to introduce new legislation that would limit the operation of old nuclear power plants to 40 years, in exceptional cases this law would allow for life spans of up to 60 years.

Noda also supports the export of Japanese nuclear technology. Japan's Ministry of Education, Science and Culture has provided funding to schools, even after the nuclear accident, so young Japanese can learn about the supposed blessings of nuclear energy. This is one of the political peculiarities of this nation that continuously strives for harmony and abhors nothing so much as abrupt changes in course.

The fact of the matter, however, is that the struggle to achieve a new energy consensus began a long time ago. Japan's strongest opponents of nuclear power are not its notoriously fragmented environmental groups but, rather, its rural prefectures, which have emerged as the most influential driving forces against a return to nuclear power.

Ever since Fukushima, these local governments have no longer been able to afford ignoring the fears of their constituents. The usual lavish subsidies from Tokyo are failing to convince them to restart nuclear reactors that have been shut down. Even if the government certifies such facilities as safe, officials such as the governor of Niigata, Hirohiko Izumida, have warned that they will not necessarily agree to put them back into operation. The shock sits too deeply among those who have borne the brunt of the Fukushima disaster.

Inescapable Contamination Kenta Sato, 29, a junior partner at a welding company, was evacuated in May with 6,500 other residents of the town of Iitate. Since then, the slender man has been living with his mother in a rental apartment nearly an hour's drive away, in the prefecture capital Fukushima. His father and grandmother had to be housed elsewhere.

Sato gets in a car to be driven to Iitate. He wants to see if everything is in order and feed the three dogs he left behind. He's not wearing any protective clothing -- just a down jacket, tight jeans and pointy patent-leather shoes. He couldn't escape the radiation anyway: Even in the supposedly safe city of Fukushima, his measuring instrument shows two microsieverts today.

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