Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan speaks during a press conference at his official residence in Tokyo, Wednesday, July 13, 2011. Kan said he wants the country to learn from its ongoing crisis and become less reliant on nuclear energy. (Shizuo Kambayashi/AP)

Japan’s prime minister calls for phase-out of nuclear power

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan said in a television address to the country Wednesday that Japan should decrease and eventually eliminate its reliance on nuclear energy.

“We will aim to bring about a society that can exist without nuclear power,” he said.

The statement was Kan’s clearest yet about the appropriate long-term energy goals for a country dealing with the worst nuclear crisis in a quarter-century. But Kan did not address the strategy behind such a phase-out or its potential economic toll.

For four months now — as the earthquake-damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant has leaked radiation — nuclear energy and its future here have polarized Japan, with thousands of protesters demanding its abandonment and some government officials insisting it remains necessary. Before this week, Kan had remained publicly ambivalent, calling for a boost in renewable energy sources but giving few clues about the government’s views on long-term nuclear reliance.

Kan told lawmakers Tuesday that Japan must scrap a plan that calls for the country to increase its use of nuclear power to 53 percent by 2030, up from the pre-quake level of roughly 30 percent. And he took a stand Wednesday against the government’s long-peddled slogan about the safety of nuclear power — the “safety myth” that allowed for the construction of 54 reactors over four decades.

“Through my experience of the March 11 accident, I came to realize the risk of nuclear energy is too high,” Kan said. “It involves technology that cannot be controlled according to our conventional concept of safety.”

Kan’s energy plan faces numerous obstacles, from within his own government and from the utility companies that act as regional monopolies. There is also the matter of Kan’s own domestic unpopularity and his waning authority to guide the country; Kan suggested last month that he would soon resign but subsequently carried on as if he had never said such a thing.

No matter who leads the country, though, Japan’s government must map out the details of its short- and long-term energy strategies, analysts say — in part so it can avoid an energy crisis. Already, 35 of the country’s 54 reactors are offline, either damaged, halted by the earthquake and resulting tsunami, or down for routine repairs. Since March 11, Japan has been unable to restart any of its reactors, scuttled by local opposition and its own meandering policies. That alone has led to nationwide energy shortages, tightening margins for businesses and ensuring a sweaty summer for major cities.

But the energy shortages could become more severe in coming months as the reactors that are still operating come offline for scheduled tests. If Japan does not find a way to restart its reactors, the country could be entirely without nuclear energy by April, according to experts.

On Wednesday, the Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s second-largest paper, ran a front-page editorial calling for the phase-out of nuclear energy. But the piece also warned against immediate abandonment.

“If we go to zero suddenly, we will encounter power shortages, and our lives and economic activities will be hugely affected,” the editorial said. “It is more realistic to not try too hard but to steadily decrease the dependency.”

Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.