Kan Promises Less Nuclear Power, Debate on Atomic Plants

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan
Naoto Kan, Japan's prime minister. Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

Prime Minister Naoto Kan pledged to reduce Japan’s reliance on nuclear power and called for debate on whether private companies should be allowed to run atomic plants in light of the Fukushima disaster.

“We should reduce nuclear dependency in a planned, step-by-step manner,” Kan told reporters today in Tokyo. “We should eventually create a society where we can do without atomic energy.”

Opposition to nuclear power is rising in Japan four months after a magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami crippled Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant, sparking the worst atomic accident in 25 years. The Asahi newspaper said yesterday that 77 percent of respondents to a phone poll favor phasing out nuclear energy, up from 74 percent last month.

“Most Japanese people support the idea of departing from nuclear energy,” said Kazutaka Kirishima, an economics professor at Josai University near Tokyo. “If atomic power ends in a couple of decades, nationalizing nuclear power operations will become just a temporary, insignificant agenda item.”

Kan told lawmakers yesterday Japan should scrap its plan to increase dependency on nuclear energy to 53 percent by 2030. The government will draw up a blueprint for Japan’s future energy policy “in the not too distant future” that will take into consideration the time it will take to increase use of renewable energy, he said.

Timetable ‘Premature’

Kan declined to comment on a timetable toward a nuclear-free society, saying it’s premature.

“We need a lot of debates on this energy policy shift,” he said. “I’ve outlined my basic stance on nuclear power plants and nuclear energy. I want to more aggressively promote renewable energy and energy savings.”

The catastrophe at the plant north of Tokyo displaced about 50,000 households after radiation leaked into the air, soil and sea. Radiation emissions from the accident may exceed Chernobyl in 1986, according to Tokyo Electric, which hasn’t released a full account of the amount released.

The Fukushima disaster raises the question as to whether nuclear power generation should remain in the hands of non-state companies, Kan said in parliament.

State-controlled Electricite de France SA operates all of France’s 58 nuclear reactors, which generate about 75 percent of the nation’s power. All atomic power in China and India is produced by government-owned companies.

Nationalizing Operations

Yoshito Sengoku, Japan’s deputy chief cabinet secretary, may propose the government split up Tokyo Electric and nationalize the company’s nuclear power operations, the Mainichi newspaper reported July 3, citing an internal document drafted by the official. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said the next day he didn’t know anything about such a proposal.

The country’s 54 reactors, most of them owned by regional utilities, accounted for about 28 percent of Japan’s electricity output in the year ended March 2010, according to data on the website of the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan.

About two-thirds of these reactors have been shut either by the March 11 disaster or for maintenance, and the government said this week the units must undergo stress tests before they can be allowed to resume operations.

Kan yesterday described the proposed stress tests as an “important step forward,” and said the final decision to start reactors after the measures are completed will be taken by him and the trade minister, chief cabinet secretary and minister for nuclear crisis management.

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