As well as raising serious doubts about the safety of nuclear reactors, the Tohoku disaster has thrown into doubt the government’s policy of promoting nuclear power.

But while public concern escalates over the use of atomic energy, it is uncertain how far the nation’s reliance on atomic power will be scaled back, given the lack of environmentally safe equivalents and fears of power shortages hitting the economically vital Kanto region.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano suggested March 18 that the government may review its nuclear policy. He also said recent remarks about the difficulty of promoting nuclear power by Sadakazu Tanigaki, leader of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, were “perfectly legitimate.”

Under the basic energy plan endorsed in June 2010, Japan said nuclear power will be its “core source of energy in the medium and long term.” It also outlined a program to build at least 14 nuclear reactors by 2030, with nine slated for completion by 2020.

Before the devastating March 11 quake and tsunami, 54 commercial nuclear reactors were in operation, accounting for around 30 percent of the total electricity generated nationwide.

As of December 2009, Japan trailed only the United States and France in annual nuclear power generation.

But it now appears out of the question that local communities will agree to host nuclear reactors following the Tohoku catastrophe, which crippled the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant and caused widespread radioactive contamination.

Amid the ongoing crisis, Chugoku Electric Power Co. said March 15 that it had decided to temporarily suspend land reclamation for a nuclear power plant in Yamaguchi Prefecture, saying it had to fully brief nearby residents about the project first.

In the city of Omaezaki, Shizuoka Prefecture, where there are long-delayed plans to introduce “pluthermal” power generation using mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel, a blend of uranium and weapons-grade plutonium reprocessed from spent nuclear fuel, Mayor Shigeo Ishihara said, “We can no longer say with confidence that the plan is definitely safe.”

Even before the catastrophe, construction of nuclear plants was controversial because of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Nonetheless, nuclear power has become a crucial source of energy that the resource-poor country can produce domestically.

And since there doesn’t appear to be an alternative for the time being, abandoning atomic energy altogether may be unrealistic.

Renewable energy sources, such as solar or wind power, have huge potential, but their generation costs are high and the technologies have not developed sufficiently enough to maintain stable output.

As well as the Fukushima No. 1 plant, the quake-tsunami disaster damaged the thermal power plants in northeastern and eastern Japan that also supply power to Tokyo and nearby prefectures.

As an emergency measure to avoid massive unpredictable blackouts, Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the wrecked Fukushima plant, started rolling blackouts in the Kanto region March 14.

While the program may end around late April, Tepco estimates that power rationing could be reintroduced in the summer, when the use of air conditioners causes demand for power to spike. As a result, households and businesses across the Kanto plain may have to face prolonged outages.

The government has said it will draw up by around the end of April a set of measures to promote energy-saving measures and increase power supplies in the hope of ending power rationing early.

Tepco, in the meantime, is working to restore its power output capacity, which dropped by 40 percent at one point after the quake and tsunami.

Industry ministry officials said that a “medium-term response” may be to build more thermal power plants and indicated the government may explore this option.

Erecting a thermal power plant usually takes about 10 years, but “the change in the situation” following the quake and tsunami may allow for speedier construction. Also, such plants would be far more acceptable to local residents than nuclear reactors, the officials said.

A senior official at the government’s nuclear safety agency, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the direction of energy policy will likely depend on how serious the public’s “nuclear allergy” becomes in the wake of the Fukushima crisis.

“If nuclear power generation becomes really difficult, even if we take measures to enhance the safety of reactors, we may have to depend more on thermal power. . . . But that option would mean going against efforts to fight global warming,” the official said.

“So in that case, we may face the ultimate dilemma of whether we allow power shortages or cause global warming,” he added.

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