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In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster three years ago, Japan's government shuttered its nuclear reactors. Other countries like Germany followed suit. But yesterday, Tokyo changed course. It issued a draft energy plan to fire up the country's nuclear plants.
As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports, energy supply looms large over Japan's efforts to recover from economic stagnation.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: The Draft Basic Energy Plan sends very mixed signals. It says Japan will reduce its dependence on nuclear energy as much as possible. It also says nuclear will remain a key source of electricity. It doesn't offer any timetables or specify the proportion of fossil fuels, renewables, and nuclear in Japan's energy mix.
Toshikazu Okuya is an official in the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, or METI, which issued the plan. He sees Japan facing a dire energy crisis.
TOSHIKAZU OKUYA: (Through Translator) Our dependence on imported oil is now higher than during the oil shock of 1973. We cannot say we're enjoying a stable energy supply now. The increased cost of importing fuels has had a big, negative impact on our balance of trade. That's the reality we face.
KUHN: Okuya says that Japan now relies on imported fossil fuels for 88 percent of its energy needs. Since the nuclear plants were shut down, domestic electricity bills have gone up 20 percent. But Masaru Kaneko, an economist at Keio University in Tokyo, argues that the government is exaggerating those needs in order to justify restarting the nuclear reactors. The plan calls for Japan's nuclear reactors to be restarted once they meet new, tougher safety standards.
MASARU KANEKO: (Through Translator) The government wants to restart the nuclear reactors because they think they can generate enough electricity to cover the demand. So when they push that goal, the goal of saving energy fades into the background.
KUHN: Opinion polls since the Fukushima disaster have shown clear support for a nuclear-free Japan. Some say Japan ought to phase out the nuclear plants gradually, and then there are folks like 26-year-old beautician Hiromi Matsuyama.
HIROMI MATSUYAMA: (Through Translator) We already have so many places that are uninhabitable due to nuclear radiation. I just couldn't stand it if they restarted the reactors. I wish I could just leave this country.
KUHN: Japan's energy policy is likely to affect the outcome of Abenomics, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's scheme to revive the Japanese economy. His stimulus spending and monetary easing have helped boost stock prices and exports but wages and consumer demand remain flat.
Masaru Kaneko says Abenomics was supposed to include structural reforms. One place to start, he suggests, would be the alliance of power companies, METI bureaucrats, and ruling Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP, politicians.
KANEKO: (Through Translator) Seventy percent of individual donations to the LDP come from electricity company executives. These power companies don't want to give up their regional monopolies and they don't want to take responsibility for the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
KUHN: Kaneko adds that Abe's nationalist political agenda has distracted him from reforming Japan's energy sector, just when it needs it most. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News.
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