Post-tsunami Japan sticking with nuclear power

September 10, 2011 - 5:40 AM
Japan Nuclear Future

This Saturday, July. 23, 2011 photo shows the Ikata nuclear power plant operated by Shikoku Electric Power Co. in Ikata, western Japan. The facility is one of the world's most seismologically risky plants. Many in Japan have grown uneasy with nuclear power since the March 11, 2011 tsunami, which sent the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant into meltdown. Yet six months after the disaster, Japan seems to feel it has little choice but to live with nuclear power, at least for now. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

MATSUYAMA, Japan (AP) — Takashi Yamada would prefer life without the nearby nuclear power plant. But the 66-year-old retired electronics retailer says, "It is also true we all need it."

Host communities such as this seaside city on the island of Shikoku need the jobs and financial subsidies the plants provide. And Japan's $5.5 trillion economy needs the energy.

Many Japanese have grown uneasy with nuclear power since the March 11 tsunami, which left more than 20,000 dead or missing and sent a plant in Fukushima into meltdown. Anti-nuke protesters took to the streets, and a heated debate ensued over the future of atomic energy. A recent Associated Press-GfK poll found that 55 percent of Japanese want to reduce the number of reactors in the country.

Six months later, though, the nation seems to be sticking with nuclear power, at least for now. Unlike Germany, which accelerated plans to phase out atomic energy after Fukushima, Japan shows no signs of doing so. In recent days, utilities began newly mandated earthquake and tsunami stress tests, a first step toward restarting reactors idled for maintenance.

"What is the alternative?" asks Fumiko Nakamura, a flower arrangement teacher in Tokyo. She worries about nuclear safety in earthquake-prone Japan but says it will take time to develop other types of energy. "Japan is a resource-poor nation, and we need electricity."

The world's third-largest economy lacks other sources such as coal. An island nation, it can't easily buy electricity from neighbors, as Germany can from France. Alternative energy is expensive. And nuclear technology is the nation's pride, even a lucrative export.

Moreover, consensus-oriented Japan doesn't have an outspoken public saying "No" to nuclear power. In a society that frowns upon defiance of the government, many Japanese are reluctant to join a movement that is often discredited as eccentric, even after Fukushima. That means Japan's leaders have no real need to reject an industry that has helped fuel the country's prosperity for decades.

"The everyday hasn't changed," said Haruki Tange, a professor of policymaking at Ehime University in Matsuyama. "There is this prevailing mood that makes it really difficult to voice any opposition to nuclear power."

March 11 may yet prove to be Japan's Three Mile Island moment. No new plants have been approved in the U.S. since the 1979 disaster, and Japan has canceled two new ones already and shelved plans to increase its reliance on nuclear power from 30 to 50 percent.

But Tange's resignation underscores a widespread acceptance of the status quo in Japan, home to 54 reactors speckling the coast.

Matsuyama, a city of 500,000, sits 30 miles (50 kilometers) from Ikata, one of the world's most seismologically risky plants. The government says there is a 70 percent probability of a major quake here in the next 30 years.

In an unprecedented protest, about 100 people took to the streets in July to demand Ikata be shut down. "I always thought protests were scary," said one marcher, 22-year-old university student Miwa Ozue. "But now, I want the world to know."

Most onlookers ignored the largely jovial crowd that banged on drums and chanted slogans. Two months later, Shikoku Electric Power Co. is moving forward with stress tests on one of Ikata's three reactors, which was stopped in April for routine inspections.

Fukushima has influenced the public's thinking. Six out of 10 respondents to the AP-GfK poll said they had little or no confidence in the safety of Japan's nuclear plants. Only 5 percent were very confident.

The telephone poll by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications surveyed 1,000 adults across Japan between July 29 and Aug. 10. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.

Roughly a third said they want to keep the number of nuclear plants about the same, while 3 percent want to eliminate them completely.

Such thinking, though, has not been translated into action.

Power shortages since the tsunami, coupled with an unusually sweltering summer, have helped business and its backers in government win the argument that Japan can't afford to shut down its reactors.

The nuclear industry also benefits from close government ties. Bureaucratic ranks are packed with former utility executives. The same ministry both promotes and regulates nuclear power. Such relationships have endured, despite revelations of past cover-ups of radiation leaks and safety violations.

In the half year since the tsunami, commuter trains have often been dark inside, dizzyingly hot and more packed than usual because of reduced schedules. Neon lights disappeared from once-glitzy urban landscapes. Messages flashed on the Internet and electronic billboards, ominously warning about electricity use versus supply.

Manufacturers scrambled to cope. For automakers, the juggling included running assembly plants over the weekend and closing Thursday and Friday to reduce peak demand. "It has been totally exhausting," said Toshiyuki Shiga, chief operating officer of Nissan Motor Co.

Like many, Yoko Fujimura heeded government calls to conserve by going without air conditioning at her Yokohama home, despite outdoor temperatures that reached 100 degrees (38 degrees Celsius).

Clearly worried about shortages, the 32-year-old waitress thinks any move away from nuclear power could take decades. "I wonder what would happen if we didn't have electricity," she said. "Our entire lifestyles would change."

Before he resigned last month, Prime Minister Naoto Kan pledged to reduce Japan's reliance on nuclear power and develop solar, wind and other sources. But he later played that down as his personal view and has since been replaced by Yoshihiko Noda, who is expected to be more willing to go along with industry-friendly bureaucrats.

"The panic is starting to calm down," says Yoshito Hori, chief executive of management training company Globis Corp., who has been highly vocal about Japan's need for nuclear power.

He predicts all of Japan's reactors will eventually return to service, with the exception of Fukushima and possibly Hamaoka, a plant in central Japan that was shut down after the Fukushima crisis because of a 90 percent probability of a major quake in the area in the next 30 years.

"We want to restart them," Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yoshio Hachiro said recently.

Host communities feel they have little choice. Relatively poor, they have come to embrace their nuclear plants, as initial doubts give way to gradual acceptance and financial dependence. Opposition becomes taboo.

Hiroshi Kainuma, a sociologist who has researched Fukushima, said residents of what he calls "nuclear villages" fear life without a plant. "Almost subconsciously, in their everyday, they have grown to support nuclear power," he said.

The persistence of such thinking worries Masakazu Tarumi, a Buddhist priest who has fought the Ikata plant for more than 20 years. He hopes foreign media coverage might help sway opinion.

"If this can't bring change, nothing will," he said of the Fukushima crisis, fingering a frayed pack of his newsletters warning of Ikata's dangers. "What has happened was worse than our worst fears."

Tange, the Ehime University professor, remains pessimistic. "We are responsible for having created this kind of society," he said with a sarcastic laugh, "a society that doesn't tolerate opposition."

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Online:

http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com

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