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Japan Backs Off Of Nuclear Power After Public Outcry

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Japan Backs Off Of Nuclear Power After Public Outcry

Japan Backs Off Of Nuclear Power After Public Outcry

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Japan is rethinking how it produces electricity. That's after the massive earthquake and tsunami two months ago that devastated the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. Over a quarter of the country's electricity is produced by nuclear power. Prime Minister Naoto Kan this week persuaded the operators of another plant west of Tokyo to temporarily close to make safety improvements.

And as NPR's Brian Naylor reports from Tokyo, Kan is also canceling a plan to build more nuclear facilities.

BRIAN NAYLOR: Kan's decisions to back away from nuclear power came after an unusual number of public demonstrations like this one outside Tokyo last month.

(Soundbite of protest)

NAYLOR: The demonstrations were called to protest Japan's reliance on nuclear power and over the continued operation of the Hamaoka nuclear power plant, about 125 miles upwind from Tokyo. The protests have been more frequent because many Japanese have grown impatient with the government, says Koichi Nakano, who teaches political science at Sophia University in Tokyo.

Professor KOICHI NAKANO (Political Science, Sophia University): Skeptics argue that, in fact, Japan has enough energy already, as of now, without nuclear power plants, using fossil fuels and hydro-electronic power generation. And so I think people are now becoming gradually exposed to those new facts.

NAYLOR: Declining public support for nuclear power appears to be having an impact on the thinking of Prime Minister Kan. In addition to convincing the operators of the Hamaoka plant to suspend operations, on Tuesday, Kan acted again, announcing out of the blue that the country will no longer seek to build 14 new nuclear plants, scrapping a goal of producing half of Japan's power needs with nuclear energy.

Mr. NAOTO KAN (Prime Minister, Japan): (Through translator) After this big incident occurred, I think the current basic energy policy plan needs to be discussed from scratch. In such discussion, we should ensure more safety of nuclear energy.

NAYLOR: That's the kind of rethinking many in Japan have been calling for.

Tomoko Abe is a member of Japan's Lower House. A Social Democrat, she's a leader of a group of lawmakers looking to force the government to consider alternatives to nuclear power. They call their group Energy Shift Japan.

Ms. TOMOKO ABE (Social Democrat, Energy Shift Japan): (Through translator) Japan has always had risk. It is sitting on this island with lots of earthquakes, and now there are plants sitting on them. We're at a point where all politicians must check the old policy and decide whether we should go on or change.

NAYLOR: Abe's group is pushing a proposal that would allow green energy sources - including solar, wind and biomass - access to Japan's power grid. About half of Japan's electrical power is generated by natural gas and coal. The nuclear crisis here is likely to lead to more use of those fossil fuels and possible power shortages this summer.

Officials are already calling on residents to conserve electricity. Some lights have been dimmed and escalators shut down. But in a country where heated toilet seats are not uncommon, getting residential users to cut back on demand remains a challenge.

At the headquarters of the electrical workers' union, they've even turned off an aquarium in the lobby to save power. It's unclear what happened to the fish. But Atsushi Uchida, the general secretary of the electrical workers' union, is skeptical about the push for alternative energy.

Mr. ATSUSHI UCHIDA (General Secretary, Electrical Workers' Union): (Speaking Japanese)

NAYLOR: Uchida says that the entire metro area of Tokyo would have to be covered with solar panels to replace the electricity produced by just one of the reactors at Fukushima. And although he concedes peoples' concern about safety, he calls nuclear power indispensable.

It's a common attitude among Japanese industry and many in government and it illustrates the challenge of bringing about change to Japan's energy mix.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Tokyo.

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