Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s decision to ask Chubu Electric Power Co. to shut the Hamaoka nuclear power plant in Shizuoka Prefecture met with mixed reactions. The residents of nearby Omaezaki are concerned since the facility employs about 2,800 people, but Chubu’s subsequent announcement that it would agree to Kan’s request until after it erected a taller seawall to protect against potential tsunami has given the prime minister a slight spike in his approval ratings, which was the obvious intent.

The opposition is already chipping away. Last week on the TV Asahi talk show “Sunday Front Line,” Liberal Democratic Party point man Shigeru Ishiba took issue with Kan’s selectivity. If nuclear power is so dangerous, Ishiba pointed out, why did he ask that only Hamaoka be shut down?

It was a transparently cynical argument: The LDP is the architect of Japan’s nuclear policy and doesn’t want any plants to be turned off. Without addressing Hamaoka’s specific dangers — that it is close to Tokyo and sits on an active fault which experts say has an 87 percent chance of delivering a massive earthquake in the next 30 years — Ishiba implied that Kan’s Democratic Party of Japan is following its own impulses by exploiting people’s unease about nuclear power without “proper scientific explanation.”

Despite some talk about exploring alternative energy sources in the future, the DPJ is as dedicated to nukes as the LDP is. Once the seawall is built, Hamaoka will go back online, but the seawall is not a countermeasure for an earthquake, which could still cause serious damage to the plant.

The decision was a political one, as was the LDP’s response, which is in keeping with the history of nuclear power in Japan. TV Asahi asked retired LDP kingpin Yasuhiro Nakasone to comment on the current crisis, since he had a hand in bringing nuclear energy to Japan. The former prime minister admitted that safety measures had proven insufficient, but nevertheless defended Japan’s nuclear policy: Civilization bends toward progress, which is what nuclear energy represented in the 1950s.

This view did not discount the fact that Japan’s own civilization is the only one to ever suffer a nuclear attack. Nakasone explained, with a touch of nostalgia, what he had been up against. There was much opposition: Hiroshima was still a vivid memory, despite the American occupation’s efforts to suppress discussion of the bombing.

This sentiment reached boiling point on June 1, 1954, when the United States conducted an atomic test in the South Pacific and a Japanese fishing boat was irradiated. The news sparked the strongest anti-American anger since the war. The U.S. wanted to dispel this resentment and — according to declassified U.S. intelligence documents cited by TV Asahi — found an ally in Matsutaro Shoriki, the powerful head of the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper. Working with the CIA, Shoriki promoted the peaceful use of atomic energy as a means of “fighting fire with fire”: Make the Japanese people tolerate America’s nuclear deterrence policy by selling them on nuclear energy.

Shoriki wanted to enter politics, and he latched on to nuclear energy as the cornerstone of his agenda. Japan had no viable natural energy resources at the time, and the only way it could achieve its economic goals was to produce a lot of energy at low cost. Using his newspaper, as well as the affiliated Nihon TV network, Shoriki shilled for atomic power. He sponsored a nuclear exposition in Hibiya Park in 1955 that attracted 360,000 visitors in a month. By the mid-’60s, the first commercial nuclear power plant was online, and the Japanese people liked America.

Nuclear energy had become national policy. As a consequence, the nuclear industry, the bureaucracy and the political world all became interdependent, their respective fortunes tied to the growth of nuclear power. Despite increased reservations about safety, the momentum was irresistible, especially after the first “oil shock.” This led to the most important piece of energy-related legislation in Japan’s history, a law that would tax any energy sold.

The tax is not a burden on the industry: Power companies simply factor it into everyone’s electric bill. Its essence, in fact, is to help utilities. The revenues collected by the central government are passed on to local governments that agree to “host” nuclear power plants. It has always been difficult to find new places for reactors: Since 1973, only five have been constructed in Japan in new locations. Twenty-three others have been built in municipalities that already have nukes. Most residents routinely reject proposals to put plants in their communities, and so have to be persuaded with public works projects and jobs.

As one local government official told TV Asahi, the result is “nuclear addiction.” The subsidy is based on how much power a plant produces, so the bigger the reactor, the more money the residents get. They also collect property taxes from the plant operators but, due to depreciation tax, revenues decrease over time, and so local governments, hooked on this cash, approve replacement plants.

For the last 30 years, Japan has built an average of 1.5 nuclear reactors a year, the highest rate in the world, even though nuclear energy accounts for only 28 percent of the country’s electricity needs. Though the government insists nuclear is central to Japan’s economic well-being, what’s important is the building of plants, not the production of energy. Construction benefits politicians and bureaucrats, while energy production mainly benefits power companies.

With Hamaoka shut down, that means only 18 of Japan’s 54 nuclear power plants are operating right now. One that isn’t is the Monju reactor in Fukui Prefecture, which has been more or less offline since 1995 and costs ¥55 million a day to maintain. Since Monju isn’t contributing to Japan’s energy needs, let’s at least hope that money is making the local residents happy.