Changing course, Japan now sees future for nuclear power


This photo released by Tokyo Electric Power Co. shows radioactive water leaked from a tank at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant Feb. 20, 2014.The operator said it did not reach the Pacific Ocean. A new Japanese government draft report calls for long-term reliance on nuclear power. (AP/AP)

The Japanese government unveiled the draft of a contentious new national energy plan Tuesday that calls for the long-term reliance on nuclear power and all but voids the phaseout pledge of an earlier administration.

The energy plan still must receive cabinet approval before being finalized, a step likely to come next month. But it signals the intent of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to return to an energy source whose risks have divided the country since a series of meltdowns three years ago at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

Japan has made startlingly little progress since that accident in figuring out whether to ditch or reembrace atomic power — in part because of political turnover, in part because the debate is so testy. While activists and many voters warn against operating reactors in an earthquake-prone country, major companies and politicians such as Abe call atomic power an economy-friendly source of cheap power.

Since taking office 14 months ago, Abe has indicated his interest in restarting Japan’s reactors once they meet new safety standards. But the new energy plan indicates that those restarts wouldn’t be stopgap measures to manage energy shortages; rather, the reactors could operate for decades, providing what the government plan described as a “superior” kind of stability. A previous ruling party had said in 2012 that Japan would phase out nuclear power by the 2030s.

In a 75-page draft of the energy report released Tuesday, Japan described nuclear power as a dependable source that “emits no greenhouse gas.” The plan, which also calls for the accelerated adoption of renewable sources, did not indicate a target for nuclear power’s share of the overall energy mix.

Japan has few natural resources of its own and must import fossil fuels — mostly oil and liquefied natural gas — to fill the void of nuclear power. Japan’s 48 operable reactors remain idled, many awaiting safety upgrades. Before the Fukushima accident, Japan relied on nuclear power for 30 percent of its electricity supply, with plans to increase that share to 50 percent by 2030.

Some Japanese media have speculated that reactors could restart as early as this summer. But the restart effort could run into trouble if red flags are raised during safety assessments carried out by Japan’s nuclear watchdog. The government push to reestablish atomic power could also reawaken the sprawling but disorganized anti-nuclear movement, which has gained little political traction over the past three years.

Though a majority of Japanese oppose nuclear power, voters still fret most about the economy, and Abe — with an approval rating near 60 percent — owes his popularity to stimulus and monetary policy measures aimed at ending deflation. When speaking about nuclear power, Abe has emphasized that new safety regulations will be the “most stringent standards found anywhere in the world.”

If the reactors are not turned back on, the energy companies that operate them will face enormous losses and decommissioning costs, leading to higher energy costs for consumers.

Those who oppose nuclear power argue that it has a hidden cost, one that roars to the surface only in cases of disaster. The meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi contaminated about 700 square miles, forced more than 150,000 people to flee their homes and now require a challenging cleanup that has brought about new releases of radiation into the environment. The decommissioning of Fukushima Daiichi is expected to take several decades and cost roughly $100 billion.

Yuki Oda in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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