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After Nuclear Mishap, Japan Debates Energy Future
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After Nuclear Mishap, Japan Debates Energy Future
After Nuclear Mishap, Japan Debates Energy Future
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ROBERT SIEGEL, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MICHELE NORRIS, host: And I'm Michele Norris.

After the nuclear meltdown earlier this year, 70 percent of Japanese say they want to phase out atomic energy. Japan's legislature even took a first step, recently passing a bill to subsidize wind and solar power.

But as NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Tokyo, it will be a difficult transition for a country with almost no natural resources. And even backers of renewable energy say it could take generations for Japan to become nuclear-free.

FRANK LANGFITT: Japan's newest mega solar project opened last month in the Tokyo suburb of Kawasaki City. Nearly 38,000 solar panels spread across land the size of several football fields. Together, they power more than two thousand homes.

Tomomi Hasegawa works for the local environmental department. He says solar energy has some big attractions in the age of climate change and nuclear fear.

TOMOMI HASEGAWA: (Through Translator) As for safety, as you can see, there are no exposed power lines, so it's very safe. It doesn't emit anything, so there's no pollution either.

LANGFITT: But there are limitations. In clear weather, the panels can generate up to 7,000 kilowatts a day.

HASEGAWA: (Through Translator) Today isn't sunny, so the efficiency will be lower, around 3,000 kilowatts.

LANGFITT: And the panels take up space, a precious commodity in this crowded, mountainous archipelago.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIRPLANE TAKING OFF)

LANGFITT: Kawasaki City is so dense, the government had to squeeze the project onto an industrial waste site, between the airport and Tokyo Bay. Last month, the Japanese legislature passed a bill forcing power companies to buy solar and wind energy at inflated prices. The idea: make it worthwhile for companies to invest in expensive technology and speed up Japan's shift towards renewable energy.

Kono Taro is a member of parliament in the opposition Liberal Democratic Party. He says the strategy is to let nuclear power slowly die off.

KONO TARO: People generally agree that we should not add any more nuclear reactor and any nuclear reactor that has been operated for 40 years should be decommissioned. Then, by 2050, our nuclear power will be zero.

LANGFITT: That would be a stunning turnaround. Nuclear accounts for at least a quarter of Japan's energy. Solar and wind: just one percent.

Taro knows renewable energy has problems, but he sees ways around them. Not enough land? Put more solar panels on rooftops, he says.

TARO: We are surrounded by the ocean, so we could do a lot of offshore wind power.

LANGFITT: And, Taro says, one of Japan's most powerful businessmen - Masayoshi Son of cell phone giant Softbank - has a novel idea for using farmland damaged by the tsunami.

TARO: There's lots of rice fields where the seawater has covered and not fit to grow rice for some time. He wanted to rent it out and put mega solar on top of it.

LANGFITT: Taro says opposition to atomic energy won't fade away. For one thing, the power plant in Fukushima Prefecture is still leaking radiation and worrying people.

TARO: Is it safe to eat rice? Is it safe to eat beef? That's what all the mothers been asking these days - even my wife. So people will not forget so easily.

LANGFITT: Japan's powerful nuclear energy industry is betting they will and that fear will give way to economic realism in this resource-poor country.

MASAKAZU TOYODA: Almost all energies are imported from abroad: oil, natural gas, coal, even uranium.

LANGFITT: Masakazu Toyoda runs the Institute of Energy Economics, an energy industry think tank. Toyoda says reducing nuclear power in the near term will force the country to import more energy from overseas. He says that will drive up costs and hurt Japan's exporters, which are already taking a beating because of the high value of the yen.

TOYODA: If we cannot provide sufficient energy at reasonable cost, manufacturing industry will relocate their factory from Japan to abroad.

LANGFITT: Companies in the developed world make this sort of threat all the time, and not everyone buys it. But Toyoda says years of heightened energy costs could do real damage to an economy that's been stuck in the doldrums for most of the past two decades.

TOYODA: We would face degrading of our living standard and we would lose our job. That is not what the Japanese people would like to see.

LANGFITT: Toyoda thinks the new law will boost solar and wind power dramatically, but not enough to replace nuclear energy. Toyoda thinks that, despite current public opinion, Japan's government won't give up the atom.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Tokyo.

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