Germany did it a little more than a month ago, and Italy followed suit a week later. Now Japan’s prime minister has taken a stand against nukes. “In the future,” Naoto Kan told a nationwide television audience last week, “we should realize a society that can carry on without nuclear reactors.” It’s looking as if the Fukushima nuclear disaster is going to be the death knell for nukes almost across the board. Let’s put it this way: One wouldn’t invest in the stocks at this point.
The Japanese announcement so far seems the most courageous of them all. For one thing, it is a little like the victim’s family coming into court: We’re hearing the first-hand reaction to the calamity in northeast Japan last March. For another, Japan is famously short of almost all resources other than the ingenuity of its people, and it has been borderline paranoid about its energy supplies since the first OPEC price spike in the early 1970s.
Kan was and was not the right man to take this step, depending on how you look at it. By background, he is a lifelong “green,” having risen through the ranks of the influential community-politics movement that arose during Japan’s “miracle” years, when the smog was so thick you could hardly find your way to the factory gates.
At the same time, Kan’s televised announcement has exposed all of the political fault lines in the governing Democratic Party of Japan. Among the first to express opposition to the plans was Kaoru Yosano, Kan’s own economics minister. Yosano, you see, is a refugee of the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party; grassroots political action, notably on environmental issues, has always been the furthest thing from any LDP man’s mind.
The Japanese public is divided on the matter. A newspaper poll published just before Kan’s announcement indicated that 37 percent of Japanese want reactors now off line for maintenance and safety inspections to be brought back to life to assuage the power shortages the entire nation is now enduring. But look at it the other way: Two-thirds of the country remains in doubt about nuclear power even amid these trying post-Fukushima conditions. That seems to tell us something about the deep suspicion the Japanese have always harbored toward nukes.
There are consequences for Japan (and the rest of us) if Tokyo follows through with Kan’s plan to phase out Japan’s nukes, which now account for a third of the nation’s power supply. Short term, the nation will become yet more dependent than it already is on fossil fuels and imports. Meeting its “green” target — cutting greenhouse gases to three-quarters of the 1990 level by the end of this decade — could be a serious uphill climb.
Further out, Japan will either have to develop a range of alternative energy sources — wind, solar, geothermal, and so on — or raise its stakes in the already sharp competition for fuel imports that China, India, the U.S. and other big consumers are waging. But on a net basis, Kan’s announcement is all to the good. The jury’s coming in on the nuclear power case, and we’ve just had a thumbs-down from one of its most poignant victims.
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