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No nuke Japan

Since Fukushima, Japan has shuttered all but one nuclear reactor. Now the debate to restart has begun.

Kai Ryssdal: Something's going to happen in Japan early next month that hasn't happened since 1970. For the first time in more than 40 years, none of Japan's electricity will be generated by nuclear power. After the earthquake and meltdown at Fukushima last March, reactors have been shut down one by one. The trade minister said today the last one's going to be turned off before any of the others can be restarted. If they're restarted.

Marketplace's Scott Tong has the story.


Scott Tong: You may have heard this joke before: If your Internet goes out, you're back to 1979. If your power goes out, you're back to 1879. No electricity, no modern economy.

So it's astounding to Andrew Dewit of Rikkyo University in Tokyo that Japan has shut every one of its 54 nuclear reactors, except one.

Andrew Dewit: The removal of that generation capacity is simply unprecedented. This is a big, big deal.

The end of Japan's nuclear industrial complex? Too soon to tell. But we do know about the rise. How Japan, of all places, fell in love with the atom.

Newsreel: Exactly three days after Hiroshima, a B-29 set out for Nagasaki.

The Nagasaki blast in 1945 killed 50,000 people. Kido Suweichi was there, walking with his mom. He was 5.

Kido Suweichi: I heard a plane and as soon as I looked up I saw the flash. I was thrown 60 feet. Half my face was burned. My mother was burned all over her body.

By the 1950s, President Eisenhower was marketing U.S. atomic energy as an electricity source around the world. Atoms for peace.

Dwight D. Eisenhower: Against the dark background of the atomic bomb, the United States does not wish merely to present strength. But also the desire and the hope for peace.

Japan bought in, and developed a domestic energy source -- instead of importing fossil fuels at unpredictable prices.

Here's Purdue University's Daniel Aldrich.

Daniel Aldrich: Many politicians and bureaucrats envisioned Japan's future not in terms of a military race, but rather in terms of an economic once -- with energy being the engine driving forward that economic growth.

Nuclear proponents fashioned a powerful political and economic coalition and pushed Japan to a goal of more than 50 percent nuclear. It's one of the world's most complex technologies, says Aldrich.

Aldrich: They're more complicated than any 757 cockpit. They have got more miles of tubing than any skyscraper you've ever visited. They are interconnected complex machines that require strong oversight.

Then came Fukushima. Public support for nuclear fell from 80 percent to less than 10. Reports surfaced that Fukushima's parent company falsified safety reports. Utilities had ignored warnings about tsunami risk. Now the question became...

DeWit: Do you want to preserve a power economy that got you into serious trouble, that is not going to be a world-beating growth engine?

One by one, Japanese nuclear reactors shut down for routine maintenance and local officials refused to restart them. By next month, Dewit says it's likely every one of Japan's reactors will be dark.

But here's the thing: people don't miss it. Here in Osaka, where workers are loading container ships, utilities have filled the void with coal and gas-fired power. That's fine with restaurant owner Keiko Mayakawa.

Keiko Mayakawa: It's scary to depend on nuclear power. There are so many plants in this country. After Fukushima, it means accidents can happen anywhere.

I heard a lot of that sentiment. One of the few nuclear supporters is Nobuo Nishida. He runs a workshop making industrial springs. He worries that without nuclear, the price of energy will rise.

Nobuo Nishida: If they raise the price of electricity, it will be harder for us. I don't know how long I can keep this going.

Another strike against nuclear is a new subsidy this summer promoting renewable sources like wind and solar energy. Similar programs in Europe -- known as the feed-in tariff -- have jump-started sectors there. Economist Kenichi Oshima...

Kenichi Oshima: This will be a big turning point for Japan. Japanese industries have good basic technology. First renewables will develop in the domestic market. And then expand overseas.

Last week, nuclear supporters pushed back. Government officials declared two reactors fit to restart this summer. But most think any restarts would be limited. A big test will come this summer, a time of peak power demand. If Japan has any blackouts, citizens may scream to bring nuclear energy back. If not, it'll reinforce the perception they don't need it.

In Osaka, western Japan, I'm Scott Tong for Marketplace.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

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