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The ongoing nuclear crisis in northeast Japan is forcing the country's leaders to rethink its energy policies. For half a century, Japan has relied on nuclear power to meet a good deal of its energy needs and is now the world's third-largest nuclear consumer.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Tokyo that any attempts at reform will face stiff resistance from the country's powerful nuclear energy establishment.

(Soundbite of protestors)

ANTHONY KUHN: No more Fukushima, protesters chanted in downtown Tokyo last weekend, referring to the nuclear plant damaged by the tsunami. The government has acknowledged that public anger against nuclear power is growing.

Mr. NORIYUKI SHIKATA (Director, Global Communications, Prime Minister Office): We have to be creative in terms of aggressively promoting new energy policy.

KUHN: Noriyuki Shikata is director of Global Communications for the Prime Minister's Office. He says that Prime Minister Naoto Kan wants a thorough reassessment of energy policy.

Mr. SHIKATA: I think, you know, he's trying to make the case that the future policy may not be the extension or continuation of the current policy. There may be a drastic policy change.

KUHN: Japan's national energy plan calls for building 14 new nuclear plants in the next two decades and raising the proportion of electricity generated by nuclear power from the current one-third to one-half. But after this month's accidents, citizens are more likely to resist efforts to build nuclear power plants in their backyards.

Purdue University political scientist Daniel Aldrich says that in recent decades the nuclear power industry has come up with various ways to overcome such resistance.

Professor DANIEL ALDRICH (Political Science, Purdue University): These range from, for example, literally middle school curricula being written by bureaucrats that emphasize safety and necessity of nuclear power plants, to $20 million a year in money that flows to host communities, to all kinds of rewards for local mayors and city executives who cooperate with citing plants.

(Soundbite of nuclear industry ad)

KUHN: In the early 1990s, Japan's nuclear development program created this cartoon featuring the character Pluto-Kun. This animated ambassador for plutonium argued that the substance is a reliable source of energy and really not as scary as people think.

Taro Kono, a lawmaker with the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, says Japan's energy has been hijacked policy by the nuclear power lobby.

Mr. TARO KONO (Politician, Liberal Democratic Party): We've been depending on the nuclear energy so much. It's not the policy choice. It's because of those bureaucrats and the power company and the politician got some vested interest in promoting nuclear.

KUHN: Those interests form a complex web. For example, the president of the Tokyo Electric Power Company, or TEPCO, is also vice president of the Keidanren, Japan's main industry association. TEPCO employs many retired government regulators. And its labor unions are strong backers of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, or DPJ.

Andrew DeWit, a political scientist at Tokyo's Rikkyo University, argues that nuclear power's biggest backers are its customers in heavily polluting industries. And these companies, he says, have prevented the rise of cleaner and more innovative industries.

Professor ANDREW DEWIT (Political Science, Rikkyo University): There are very real institutional reasons that new finance capital hasn't flowed into those areas. It's been locked up by the structure of interests that were able to make their reproduction, their survival, the paramount policy goal.

KUHN: Many Japanese had hoped that the DPJ's landmark electoral victory in 2009 would usher in an era of reform. On the campaign trail, the DPJ promised deep cuts in carbon emissions, tariffs to support renewable energy sources, and an end to vested interests' chokehold on policymaking.

But, says Taro Kono, those interests have so far succeeded in co-opting DPJ reformers.

Prof. KONO: The change of the government did not discontinue the policy; rather, it has enhanced. It took the DPJ in the circle. So everyone's guilty and everyone has to admit their guilt in this and, well, we have to start over.

KUHN: Andrew DeWit says that the current crisis could possibly cause a split between the nuclear lobby and the manufacturers whose factory lights have been dimmed. Those companies might say...

Prof. DEWIT: Hey, you guys promised us cheap power. You said that renewables would be intermittent and costly and that's why we wouldn't use them. And then you said that nuclear was the way we could have cheap, uninterrupted power. Well, that ain't happening. So maybe you guys were wrong.

KUHN: DeWit says that a battle is brewing over how Japan will rebuild its cities and power grids. And the forces of reform and the status quo, he says, are already gearing up to win that contest.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Tokyo.

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