Japan Premier Wants Shift Away From Nuclear Power

By July 13, 2011

TOKYO — Prime Minister Naoto Kan said Wednesday that Japan should reduce and eventually eliminate its dependence on nuclear energy in what would be a radical shift in the country’s energy policy, saying that the Fukushima accident had demonstrated the dangers of the technology.

It was Mr. Kan’s strongest stand yet against nuclear energy in the aftermath of the multiple meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which was ravaged in the March 11 tsunami and suffered a substantial radiation leak. At least 80,000 people have been evacuated from around the plant, and radioactive materials have been detected in tap water as far away as Tokyo, as well as in agricultural produce like vegetables, tea and beef.

“Japan should aim for a society that does not depend on nuclear energy,” Mr. Kan said at a nationally televised news conference. “We should reduce our dependence in a planned and gradual way, and in the future we should aim to get by with no nuclear energy.”

He added, “When we think of the magnitude of the risks involved with nuclear power, the safety measures we previously conceived are inadequate.”

With his popularity at a record low, however, it is unclear whether Mr. Kan can push through such an extensive overhaul of Japan’s energy policy. Nuclear power made up about 30 percent of the country’s energy needs before the Fukushima accident, and Japan had planned to raise that share to over 50 percent by 2030.

Mr. Kan also left many difficult questions unanswered, including when Japan might become nuclear-free and how the nation would make up for the shortfall in energy. Alternative energy sources like wind, solar and geothermal power provide just 1 percent of Japan’s electricity needs. With growing public fears over nuclear safety, many of Japan’s reactors that were closed for regular checks have not been allowed to restart, setting off a widespread electricity shortage.

Mr. Kan has said those reactors must undergo stress tests before they are reopened, but he has not provided details of how extensive those tests might be or how long they might take. Just 19 of 54 reactors in Japan are still running, and there have been increasing calls, particularly from industry, for a speedier restart.

Public opinion appears to support a more cautious approach. Nearly 70 percent of Japanese oppose restarting the reactors, despite the prospect of blackouts, according to a poll published on June 27 by The Nikkei, Japan’s largest business daily. In a June 14 poll by the daily Asahi Shimbun, 74 percent of respondents said they supported a policy that would phase out nuclear power with a goal to abandon it.

Mr. Kan has also taken an increasingly antinuclear stance. In May, he ordered an aging nuclear power plant closed over earthquake and tsunami fears, and he said he would freeze plans to build new reactors.

His moves have not appeared to win him support among voters, however. A July 4 Mainichi Shimbun poll showed support for his cabinet at 19 percent, a low. Mr. Kan, 64, has said he will step aside for a younger successor once he has made some headway in efforts to rebuild in the aftermath of Japan’s recent disasters.

The prime minister’s move to redefine Japan’s nuclear policy comes amid a wider reconstruction effort since the earthquake and tsunami. Communities along Japan’s northern Pacific coast have been devastated; more than 22,000 people are estimated to be missing or dead.

A version of this article appeared in print on July 14, 2011, on page A6 of the New York edition with the headline: Japan Premier Wants Shift Away From Nuclear Power.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/14/world/asia/14japan.html?_r=1&smid=tw-nytimes&seid=auto

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