Earthquake prone Japan sees green in new nuclear power plants
The Japanese government is touting nuclear power plants as an easy way to cut carbon emissions. But safety is a public concern on the earthquake prone island, where a 6.9 magnitude quake hit on Saturday.
Tokyo and Matsuyama, Japan
Japan is pressing ahead with an expansion of nuclear power, despite public unease and vocal opposition from activists.Skip to next paragraph
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Poor in natural resources, the country has long dreamed of reducing its fossil fuel dependency through domestic nuclear power. Now it's casting nuclear energy as a key to the fight against global warming, an argument that critics reject.
Japan's debate closely mirrors those worldwide, as governments highlight nuclear power as an easier way to cut carbon emissions than boosting wind and solar power.
Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has pledged to cut Japan's carbon emissions to 75 percent of 1990 levels by 2020, if other major economies set similar targets. His government recently backed a plan for low-interest loans for new nuclear reactors.
But the public isn't entirely convinced. According to the Japanese cabinet's own poll last November, 54 percent say they feel anxious or uneasy about nuclear power, with the top concern being the risk of an accident. Forty-two percent said they feel "safe" about nuclear power.
Meanwhile, activists criticize Japan's nuclear program as dangerous, expensive, and impractical. One concern is Japan's earthquake-prone geology, which they cite in raising the specter of a quake-induced Chernobyl. Just on Saturday, a magnitude 6.9 earthquake hit off Japan's southern coast, shaking Okinawa and nearby islands and rupturing water pipes.
In recent months, activists have focused their ire on the government's introduction of "pluthermal" fuel in nuclear plants. The term refers to the use of mixed uranium-plutonium fuel known as MOX (mixed-oxide) fuel.
The government touts pluthermal as a way to reuse spent fuel, saying it's more efficient and produces less high-level radioactive waste than normal reactors. It first introduced MOX fuel at a nuclear plant last year. That drew weeks of protests from activists.
Japan is a case study in a new reality: Global reduction in the use of fossil fuels requires nations to assess their capacity for safely generating alternative forms of power – and in getting populations to buy in.