Earthquake Prone Japan Sees Green in New Nuclear Power Plants

Article excerpt

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.

Japan is pressing ahead with an expansion of nuclear power, despite public unease and vocal opposition from activists.

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.

President Obama, for example, on Feb. 16 announced $8.3 billion in loan guarantees to build the first nuclear reactors in the United States in 30 years - the first of many, he promised.

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.

"If we want to do this 25 percent reduction, obviously we need more nuclear plants," says Shunsuke Kondo, chairman of Japan's Atomic Energy Commission.

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.

A second plant, at Ikata, near the port city of Matsuyama, is set to use MOX fuel in March. "MOX fuel is many times more dangerous than uranium fuel," says Makoto Kondo, a longtime opponent of the Ikata plant. "When it comes to blasts or accidents, far more devastating damage would occur with pluthermal reactors. …