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Asia

Off the grid by 2040? Critics doubt Japan's plan

Despite Tokyo's decision to phase out of nuclear energy by the year 2040, many people remain skeptical that the government will actually go through with it.

A protester with a painting of a nuclear sign takes part in an anti-nuclear demonstration in Tokyo July 1, 2012. Kansai Electric Power Co restarted the 1,180-megawatt No.3 unit at its Ohi plant on Sunday, Japan's first nuclear reactor to come back online since the Fukushima crisis. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao (JAPAN - Tags: POLITICS ENERGY DISASTER CIVIL UNREST)

Protest gegen Atomkraft in Japan

Not long ago, it seemed impossible that Japan would quit its nuclear program. "People believed nuclear energy was 100 percent safe and that it was the best source of energy for Japan - a country with few natural resources," Alexandra Sakaki, Japan expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told DW, adding that "the disaster in Fukushima has fundamentally changed how the people feel."

March 11, 2011 changed everything. The triple disaster - earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster - has made the Japanese people skeptical. Now, a year-and-a-half after the disaster, the Japanese government has caved to pressure from the people and announced a nuclear phase-out.

The Fukushima plant

The Fukushima disaster fundamentally altered Japanese beliefs on nuclear power

Breach of trust

However, the nuclear phase-out is not set to take place any time soon - all 50 reactors are supposed to be taken off the grid some time between 2030 and 2040. Surveys have shown that the people want the phase out to begin immediately - or at least be completed within 5 to 10 years.

Since the disaster in Fukushima, more and more revelations have been getting out to the public about the misconduct of the authorities. "There has been a breach of trust in Japan," Sakaki explained. "Many people are skeptical that the authorities can even ensure security."

What's more is that the government's decision to phase out nuclear energy does not seem to be definite. "People should expect the fight to continue between pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear advocates. The topic has not really been clarified," Sakaki said, explaining that - in its declaration to phase out nuclear energy - the government had not provided any details as to how the country's energy needs would be met.

It was only briefly mentioned that renewable energy should play a larger role in future.

The question of nuclear waste disposal has also failed to be addressed. And, according to media reports, Japanese Minister of Economy Yukio Edano wants to stick with existing plans to construct three reactors. "We do not intend on revoking approval [to build the three reactors]," Edano was quoted as saying by the Thai newspaper Bangkok Post.

Filling the power gaps

Japan has to import most - around 96 percent - of its energy, primarily in the form of fossil fuels. That is expensive as well as harmful to the environment. The temporary shutdown of all of the country's 50 reactors for maintenance has created a gap in the supply of energy; before the disaster, Japan got around 30 percent of its energy from nuclear power. And there had even been plans to expand that to 50 percent by the year 2030.

In June of this year, two nuclear power plants in Oi, on the main island Honshu, were put back on the grid - reportedly to supply energy to Kyoto during the hot summer. Later reports, however, found that it had not been necessary to get the plants up and running again.

People display various signs as they stage a protest

Opponents of nuclear power are suspicious after some plants were reopened

The Japanese people were angry when they got word of the report. "People are now questioning whether it is necessary for the other reactors go back on at all and how that will be sold to them."

Alternatives?

Sakaki said all of the events have led to a change in people's awareness of energy consumption. "People have, for example, reduced the amount of energy they use. Summer in Japan is really hot. Many Japanese people, nonetheless, abstained from using air conditioning. Many people have also taken care to reduce their use of electrical appliances."

Despite the reduction of private energy consumption, people will not be able to do much to curb the country's overall energy use; energy-intensive industries are mainly the reason Japan is the world's third largest power consumer. And to change this, only fundamental, sustainable government decisions will help.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Nda looks on during a debate by Democratic Party presidential election candidates at the Japan National Press Club

Prime Minister Noda said he wants the country to turn away from atomic power

Critics are skeptical of the government's announcement last week for a long-term exit from nuclear energy; they point to the possibility that the Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's announcement to turn away from nuclear energy might have been made less out of conviction and more to secure votes in the upcoming lower house elections next year.

The German newspaper "Süddeutsche Zeitung" wrote, "The Japanese nuclear lobby is just buying time until the uproar caused by the nuclear meltdown has subsided before it convinces the government to revise its decision."

Plant operators are also unhappy with the government's resolution. TEPCO, the operator of the stricken Daiichi plant in Fukushima, declared that the necessary financial resources needed to switch over from nuclear to renewable energies had all been used up in the aftermath of Fukushima.

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