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TOKYO, Jun 21 2011 (IPS) - Three months after the devastating Mar. 11 earthquake that caused an accident at the Fukushima power plant, energy experts warn of economic fallout if nuclear energy is snuffed out too quickly, much to the dismay of an increasingly angry and frustrated public.
“The horror of the Fukushima nuclear accident cannot be denied. But the future of nuclear energy must be weighed wisely if Japan is to remain an economic power,” said Professor Takao Kashiwagi, an engineer at the prestigious Tokyo Institute of Technology. Japan has pushed the expansion of nuclear power as crucial for its economy but is currently faced with the difficult test of building a new energy policy that can appease growing anti-nuclear public sentiment without adverse effects to industry.
Kashiwagi, who is also a member of the government’s New Energy Committee, clarified his point by referring to Japan’s overwhelming dependence on nuclear energy. Almost 30 percent of the country’s power needs are covered by nuclear energy, he said.
“Rather than turn our back on the reality of our dependence on nuclear energy,” Kashiwagi argued, “it is time to develop technology that will fortify the safety aspects of nuclear plants. The best option for Japan is to work internationally towards this goal.”
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) supported that option in a long awaited report released Jun. 1 that rapped the current emergency measures in Fukushima, while calling for universal safety regulations in nuclear plants.
Anti-nuclear activist Professor Reiichi Suzuki who launched a new committee with representatives of business and academia in Fukushima said, however, that there is widening support to stop nuclear power plants in the area.
Still, the Fukushima calamity raised the spectre of power cuts from the closure of reactors, that has alarmed the manufacturing industry. Expected business losses and huge financial compensation payments have dealt a blow to the Japanese economy, whose growth in 2011 is expected to fall to less than one percent.
Economists say power shortages will force more Japanese companies to relocate to foreign countries, ushering in higher unemployment and further squeezing public funds.
International relations analyst Takeshi Inoguchi said economic alarm bells have turned the limelight onto the difficult issue of guaranteeing the safety of nuclear power. The government has promised increasing alternative energy to 20 percent of national needs as well as a transparent nuclear power policy, as shown by its acceptance of IAEA inspections this month.
“The horror of nuclear contamination in Fukushima has pressured Tokyo to humbly accept its past mistakes and promise a better era of safety. People expect these changes,” he said.
Indeed, despite national polls in May that indicate an overwhelming high of 70 percent against nuclear power, there are signs that the initial defiance, while not receding, is being tempered slightly.
A significant case in point is the re-election on Jun. 8 of Shingo Mimura as the governor of Aomori prefecture that is home to one active nuclear power plant and four more under construction.
Mimura, who was backed by the conservative Liberal Democratic Party that spearheaded Japan’s nuclear power expansion, defeated opponents who wanted to freeze construction of the nuclear plants.
He promised higher safety standards while visiting the local nuclear reactors himself. The strategy seems to have paid off.
Older Aomori residents quoted in the Japanese media spoke of the huge pressure they felt when they voted. “I am scared and I don’t like it. But everyone’s livelihood depends on the nuclear plant,” Junji Takeyama, an 80-year-old man, told Asahi Newspaper last week. His son and grandson work for electric power companies.
Nearly half the population in most municipalities in Aomori, which host nuclear reactors, is dependent on the Tohoku Electric Power Company. People are either workers, labourers in construction sites of nuclear related facilities, or shopkeepers providing services.
Subsidies over the past three decades for municipalities with reactors and fuel reprocessing plants are reported to be around 2.8 billion dollars that pay for new roads, schools and other state-of-the-art infrastructure.
Proponents of nuclear energy point out that this system allowed the government to supply stable energy resources and support economic growth in post-war Japan based on high tech manufacturing and sophisticated transportation networks.
The Fukushima tragedy struck when Japan was planning to add to its 54 nuclear reactors to increase nuclear energy to 50 percent of national power consumption.
Suzuki and Kashiwagi agree Fukushima has certainly forced Japan to abandon its former nuclear ambitions.
“How we proceed with nuclear power represents a commitment to ending the old system completely or accepting piecemeal changes. The fight is just beginning,” Suzuki said.
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