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The earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan last year severely damaged three nuclear reactors. Radiation spread through the air, into the ocean; workers labored for weeks to quench the melting reactor cores. Japan has temporarily shut down remaining nuclear plants as the public debates whether to swear off nuclear power permanently.

As NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, saying no to nukes will not be easy.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Before the accident in Fukushima, Japan got a third of its electricity from nuclear reactors. And that made economic sense. Japan has almost no coal, oil or natural gas to make electricity. Economist Mitsutsune Yamaguchi at the University of Tokyo says those nuclear power plants are now idle.

MITSUTSUNE YAMAGUCHI: Out of 54 existing plants, only two are in operation, and by the end of April it will become zero.

JOYCE: Several plants are damaged; the rest are shut down as Japan sorts out what kind of energy it wants in the future. Yamaguchi says restarting nuclear plants is no longer just up to the central government. It's up to the public as well.

YAMAGUCHI: Even if government says, yes, you can do it, unless local mayors, governors or local residents say, yes, power companies cannot start.

JOYCE: Meanwhile, the economy is taking a nosedive. For the first time in decades, Japan's vaunted trade surplus is gone. The country's spending more on imports than it earns from exports. What is Japan buying? Fuel.

JESSE JENKINS: The major utilities in Japan have increased their consumption of fuel oil by more than double.

JOYCE: Jesse Jenkins is an energy analyst at a research group called the Breakthrough Institute.

JENKINS: They've increased their use of liquefied natural gas by about 27 percent and have relied more heavily on coal as a share of their energy use.

JOYCE: That's expensive. One analysis by the International Energy Agency says replacing the electricity from idled nuclear plants is costing Japan an extra $100 million a day. Then there are the climate effects. The nuclear reactors were not emitting carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. Oil, coal and natural gas do. Jenkins says Japan's goal to reduce carbon dioxide emissions is now shelved. In fact, emissions are going up.

JENKINS: They're swapping fossil fuels for nuclear and that's driving up their CO2 emissions and the carbon intensity of their electricity supply.

JOYCE: Most of the new fuel is liquefied natural gas. It's cleaner than coal or oil, but Laszlo Varro, with the International Energy Agency, says the amount needed if Japan does not return to nuclear power is staggering.

LASZLO VARRO: You would need almost 20 percent of the entire global market of liquefied natural gas.

JOYCE: Varro notes that a lot of that natural gas comes from the Middle East through the Straits of Hormuz, a shipping route threatened by tensions over Iran's nuclear ambitions. The Japanese government and green groups are not happy about relying on fossil fuels. There's a strong sentiment to adopt a new energy mix that relies mostly on wind and solar power. That will take decades, though. Renewable energy in Japan now provides about 2 percent of the nation's electricity; nuclear provided 30 percent. In the meantime, as the economy recovers from the tsunami and earthquake, industry will need more electricity. The Japanese public will be asked to sacrifice, as they have over the past year. Yamaguchi says it's a daunting future.

YAMAGUCHI: It's a mess, you know. We have to cut our consumption itself. We did it. But whether we can continue for the coming, say, five, six, seven years without sacrificing the Japanese economy, it's almost impossible.

JOYCE: But Japan has been through tougher times. Its engineers are second to none and the country is wealthy. The IEA's Laszlo Varro says a wholesale shift to green energy is not impossible.

VARRO: It is certainly going to be expensive. How slow it is, that depends on the decisions that Japan makes. Japan is a rich and technologically sophisticated society. I think they have a potential to surprise us.

JOYCE: After the nuclear accident last year, a Japanese word became popular in conversation: setsuden. It means energy-saving. Perhaps the next phrase to catch on will be: Necessity is the mother of invention. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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