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After the tsunami, Japan may exit atomic age

A year ago, Japan depended on its 54 reactors for 30 percent of its electricity; only two of them remain open. Japan could become the first industrial society to enter the postnuclear age. 

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The four towers of the Fukushima Dadi-ichi nuclear power plant in Okuda, Japan, crippled by last year's earthquake.

Kyodo News

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They don't come much greener than Michio Sato. A science professor at Fukushima University, he has put windmills on his office roof to power his lights and runs his car on biofuel he makes himself.

But even he is conflicted about the value of nuclear energy. "For the sake of energy security and reducing greenhouse gases, I think the very safest plants should be allowed to operate," he says. "But I wonder whether even the safest ones are safe enough."

That dilemma is troubling everyone here, from ordinary citizens to cabinet ministers, as the country's nuclear plants go off-line one by one in the wake of the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on March 11, 2011, causing three reactors to leak radiation.

A year ago, Japan depended on its 54 reactors for 30 percent of its electricity; only two of them remain open, and they will be shut by the end of April. Japan could become the first industrial society to enter the postnuclear age.

The forces gathered against that prospect are powerful: The nuclear industry and utility companies are lobbying hard for the government to allow the plants to reopen soon, warning of economic disaster should power shortages cripple Japan's industry. Their pressure will be "almost unimaginable," says Shaun Burnie, an expert on Japan's nuclear program with Friends of the Earth, an antinuclear group.

Two-thirds want other energy

The Japanese public, however, sensitive both to the legacy of Hiroshima and to the risks that the Fukushima accident underlined, is strongly opposed to any continued dependence on nuclear power. Polls over the past year have found about two-thirds of respondents favor other energy sources.

That sets up a debate whose outcome will shape Japan's future, a debate that is still unresolved at the highest levels of government. For the moment, says Tsutomu Toichi, an adviser to the Institute for Energy Economics think tank here, "nobody can predict what will happen. Nobody knows how many nuclear plants may be reopened, and if so, when."

For the past year, as nuclear reactors have come off-line for refueling, routine maintenance, or by government request, Japanese utilities have made up for most of their lost electricity by boosting the amount they generate in plants fired by gas, oil, or coal.

That is unsustainable, they say, because it is costing them billions of dollars to import fossil fuels, and the government has not yet let them raise prices to consumers. "All the electricity utilities are losing money," says Dr. Toichi, whose think tank is funded by the power companies.

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