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After the tsunami, Japan may exit atomic age

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If electricity prices rose, "it would be a problem for the government and the entire economy," adds Kaname Ogawa, deputy head of policy planning at the electricity department of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), which oversees the nuclear industry.

METI is predicting a 9 percent shortfall in electricity supplies nationwide next summer if no nuclear plants are reopened, which could mean power cuts. Businesses and households in the Tokyo area achieved greater energy savings than that last summer, galvanized by a government campaign, "but we don't know if all of Japan can survive like Tokyo did," says Mr. Ogawa.

However the politics play out, it seems highly unlikely that any reactors will be on line by this summer. All of them have to undergo new government-mandated stress tests to ensure their resilience to seismic events; so far only two have finished them, and seven months into the process the Nuclear Safety Commission is still reviewing their results. Operators of 34 reactors have not even applied to do the tests yet.

Even if reactors pass their tests, the authorities still have to make the political decision whether to allow them to reopen.

'Political hot potato'

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has said a select group of cabinet ministers will decide: To reassure the public, he may want to wait until the nuclear safety agency he hopes to establish in April is set up and has issued stricter regulations. The opposition, however, objects to his plan for such an agency, and parliament has not yet begun to debate the proposal.

Nor does the decision rest only in the hands of the national government. Governors of prefectures where the nuclear plants are located have the power to block their restart, and they have to take their constituents' views into account. In the current antinuclear mood, "governors are under very strong pressure from below not to agree," says Masaru Kohno, a professor of politics at Waseda University in Tokyo.

Toichi adds, "It's a political hot potato. Nobody wants to take responsibility."

Green can't fill gap yet

Still, advocates of green energy, such as hydropower, solar, and wind, are not hopeful that such sources will replace nuclear power soon.

Even if the government achieves its goal of increasing the share of renewable sources in Japan's energy mix from its current 3.4 percent to 10 percent by 2020, "that won't have much impact on the national situation compared to what nuclear plants have provided" in the past, points out Professor Sato. "It's like an elephant and an ant," he says. "We need to increase the number of ants as quickly as possible."

But so far, laments Tetsunari Iida, head of the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, a green think tank in Tokyo, “there is little sign that the current government is ready to do that.”

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