As Fukushima memory fades, Japan’s nuclear power proponents hope for reset

For the first time since the massive 2011 earthquake and tsunami that killed thousands of people and crippled the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, Japan didn’t hold a state memorial for the disaster anniversary Friday.

On the eve of the 11th anniversary of the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, some ruling party lawmakers urged the government to hasten the restart of nuclear power plants, most of them idled since 2011 because of safety concerns.

As memories of the tragedy fade, proponents of nuclear power have become emboldened to speak out in its favor, seizing on a new threat of soaring energy prices amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The growing calls from Japan’s business leaders, lawmakers, and even the main opposition party come amid persistent public opposition to nuclear power, muddying the outlook for energy policy.

“The government must restart nuclear power plants swiftly to overcome this current crisis,” a parliamentary group of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party said Thursday, calling the situation in Ukraine “dangerous” for Japan’s energy supply.

Mindful of a looming Upper House election in July, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and members of his Cabinet have moved cautiously, repeating the government’s position that safety considerations were key to any decisions on nuclear restarts.

Energy dependence

With thousands still displaced after the meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 plant, public opposition to nuclear power runs high.

Just six of the country’s more than 30 nuclear power plants are operating, accounting for just 3.7% of energy use in 2020, down from 26% in 2010.

Resource-poor Japan imports most of its energy, and Russia is its fifth-largest supplier of oil and liquefied natural gas.

“If you could obtain the understanding of the people after having verified safety, speeding up inspections and then speeding up the restarts, that’s definitely a choice,” LDP lawmaker and former Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said this week.

As energy prices hit multi-year highs, the Group of Seven industrialized nations have also agreed it is critical to diversify energy sources and reduce dependence on Russia.

Still, national approaches have diverged, with France eyeing more nuclear power plants, while Germany vetoed this week a proposal to extend the lifespan of its nuclear plants.

“All of us are troubled by the rising energy costs … but to give that as a reason to say that nuclear energy is the only way forward is not right,” said Satoshi Tatara, an activist against nuclear energy, who lives near a nuclear plant.

“Renewable energy should be the conclusion drawn from this war, not a return to nuclear,” he said.

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