Japan Undecided About Nuclear Power

By: AP
By: AP

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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