What Future Does Nuclear Power Have in Japan?


The shutdown of nearly all nuclear reactors has forced energy providers to reopen decommissioned oil and gas power plants. Companies such as Nippon Steel and papermaker Oji are running their plants partly with their own generators -- and expanding into a new area of business: An increasing number of firms are feeding surplus energy into the public power grid and thus competing with regional monopolists, such as the Tokyo Electrical Power Company (TEPCO), the operator of the crippled reactors at Fukushima.

Calls for a Bold Transition

But Japan, which is still the world's third-largest industrialized nation, has to pay a hefty price to import the oil and gas it's burning to replace nuclear power. This is another reason why the Japanese balance of trade slipped into the red in 2011 for the first time in 31 years.

With its conventional power plants alone, though, Japan won't be able to secure its long-term energy supply. Since last summer, over 10 of these power plants have had to be temporarily shut down due to malfunctions. Indeed, the nuclear phase-out is not yet a done deal, and Japan's powerful nuclear lobby has not given up hope of a renaissance for its technology.

But resistance is starting to brew even among its own ranks. Shigeaki Koga, 56, was just one of hundreds of government workers at METI, which has massively supported the nuclear industry. But Fukushima has made him a rebel.

Until last fall, Koga was a member of the METI elite. Then he publicly proposed reforming Japan's corrupt energy sector and disbanding TEPCO. His plan calls for the government to apologize for the nuclear disaster and to launch a campaign to convince the Japanese people to make sacrifices in support of a bold transition to other energy sources. The response came over the phone. "Stop it," the minister's personal secretary angrily told him. According to Koga, even a deputy minister and the minister himself pressured him to resign. Koga has betrayed his ministry's esprit de corps. "If there's one thing that Japanese bureaucrats can't stand, it's criticism," he says.

Admittedly, a number of positions relating to nuclear energy were reshuffled after the disaster. But TEPCO has been allowed to continue as before. Starting in April, the company plans to drastically increase electricity prices for major customers. Still, it's doubtful that the company can avoid being nationalized: It faces compensation claims amounting to several trillion yen.

Rebuilding, but Afraid

Meanwhile, in the devastated community of Rikuzentakata, mayor Toba is wrangling with bureaucrats in the capital over reconstruction funds. For months, Toba has fought to have his city's tsunami protective wall replaced by a higher structure. But instead of the 15 meters that he had been hoping for, Tokyo has only approved 12.5 meters.

Now, Toba has to resort to totally different plans for Rikuzentakata's future: making it much smaller and farther from the sea. It's expected to take five years before the tsunami barrier is completed. "But then we can live here again," says Toba. In that sense, at least, the survivors of Rikuzentakata are one step ahead of those from Fukushima.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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