FEATURE - Nuclear promise sours but Japan's choices limited
Author: Elaine Lies
Instead, it is the recent history of Japan's nuclear power industry, a pillar of the government's energy policy and source of some 30 percent of the power consumed by the world's second-largest economy.
Opponents speak of lax management and argue that a nation as prone to earthquakes as Japan should seek other energy sources.
Others say that with virtually no energy resources of its own, Japan simply has few choices.
"For a country like ours, nuclear power is one option for energy, along with oil and natural gas," said Masahiro Onodera, senior researcher at Japan's Institute of Energy Economics, an industry-backed think tank.
"But to throw out one of these and replace it with another? Japan doesn't have that luxury."
Dependence on nuclear power has been starkly illustrated by warnings of an electricity crunch in Tokyo this summer if the reactors it relies on are not back on line by then.
Thirteen of 17 reactors operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co Inc (TEPCO) have been shut down temporarily due to lapses in inspections, including falsified safety reports. A 14th is due to shut down on March 1, and the rest could follow by April. No dates have been set for any of them to resume.
"From the point of view of a stable power supply, nuclear energy is essential," said Yoichi Sekizawa at the Trade Ministry's Agency for Natural Resources and Energy.
Essential as it may be, a string of accidents and scandals over the past decade has eroded public trust in the nuclear industry and its 52 commercial reactors.
The worst accident was in September 1999, when an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction was triggered at a uranium processing plant in Tokaimura, 140 km (90 miles) northeast of Tokyo. Two workers died.
Fears were fanned last year by a scandal over TEPCO's falsification of nuclear safety records in the 1980s and 1990s, revelations that led to the current shutdown of its reactors.
Given these problems, Japan's insistence on nuclear power may appear hard to understand.
However, the fact Japan is forced to rely mainly on imported energy - 52 percent of it oil, of which more than 80 percent comes from the volatile Middle East - makes policy framers edgy.
"It's true that Japanese have become anxious about nuclear energy," Trade Minister Takeo Hiranuma said recently. "But securing steady energy resources is an issue we must take up extremely seriously."
One aspect of this is reducing use of Middle East oil, a desire behind Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visit in January to the Russian Far East - a region of vast energy resources.
Even more important, planners say, is reducing Japan's reliance on imported energy at all.
"One of the big problems is keeping a steady oil supply, and depending only on fossil fuels is dangerous too," said Sekizawa. "There's no worry about imports stopping with nuclear power."
And despite numerous news stories about mishaps, statistics compiled by the Trade Ministry from International Atomic Energy Agency data show there were 15 unplanned stoppages of 50 Japanese reactors in operation in 2000, compared with 166 unplanned stoppages of 55 French reactors.
This may be partly because Japanese reactors operate on a shorter cycle - 13 months on, then three months off-line for inspection - than in other nations, reducing unplanned stoppages.
"There's always trouble with reactors," said Haruki Madarame, professor of nuclear energy at a Tokyo University research centre. "The media plays it up here. It only seems there's more."
Ordinary Japanese, however, are increasingly sceptical.
To woo them, the government is emphasising environmental benefits of nuclear power, which it says cuts greenhouse gases and is needed for Japan to meet Kyoto Protocol deadlines.
Environmentalists counter that this is meaningless.
"Japan needs to meet its Kyoto deadlines quite soon, but it takes decades to build a reactor," said Kazue