TOKYO, Oct 5, 2000 (IPS)—As other Asian countries and European nations reel from high oil prices, Japan is patting itself on its back for seeing to it early that it would not be that dependent on oil.

Still, activists say Tokyo has little to be proud about when it comes to its energy policies because it chose to rely heavily on what many here consider a dangerous fuel source — nuclear power.

The government in fact has revealed plans to build more nuclear plants amid calls from many Japanese for a scaling down in the country’s use of nuclear energy.

Japan already has 51 commercial nuclear plants that supply more than 37 percent of its energy needs, while imported oil accounts for nearly half of its needs.

Renewable energy sources such as solar, geothermal and wind generate only two percent of the country’s power. But together, nuclear power and natural gas account for nearly half of Japan’s energy needs, up from some 25 percent during the first oil crisis of 1973.

The country’s current energy profile was built over the last three decades, after the seventies’ oil crisis and the desire of Japan, the industrial power described as the most dependent on imported oil, to rely less on imported oil.

In recent years, pressure to cut down on Japan’s production of greenhouse gases has helped keep the momentum to continue reliance on nuclear power, despite accidents at nuclear plants and opposition from the public.

But activists say it is time for Tokyo to reconsider that stance.

They also say that instead of adding more nuclear plants, the government should instead start shutting down the existing facilities, where, they say, lax safety standards have made operating the plants all the more risky.

Just last week, Japan marked the first anniversary of the worst accident so far among its nuclear plants.

The Sep. 30, 1999 radiation leak at a fuel processing plant in Tokaimura, 130 kms north-east of Tokyo, led to the death of two of the facility’s workers and exposed more than 400 other people — including residents of nearby communities — to high levels of radiation.

According to Greenpeace Japan, the country’s nuclear plants have experienced a rash of emergency reactor shutdowns in recent years, and that in 1999 alone, there were at least five reported primary coolant leaks.

As expected, anti-nuclear demonstrations were held both in Tokyo and Tokaimura to commemorate the 1999 accident. To counter these, the government sponsored safety drills at nuclear facilities across the country, as well as lectures about the benefits of nuclear energy.

Tokyo also drummed up a new information network that is supposed to spring into action the moment there is another nuclear plant mishap. The network is aimed at helping spread accurate information among the public.

Further, officials said, workers at nuclear power facilities are expected to have better training. There is also a new system in place in the plants, where spot checks and stringent inspection are to be carried out so as to “control” possible accidents.

In addition, the Nuclear Safety Commission, which is currently busy forming a group of technical counselors who will always be on call, will now report directly to the prime minister should an accident occur.

Says commission head Shojiro Matsuura: “My organisation has been beefed up to Cabinet level, an indication of the government’s dedication to preventing another disaster.”

The basic message, he also says, is that “if used correctly, depending on scientific and engineering advancement and the judgements of society, nuclear power can provide mankind with a huge stable supply of energy far into the future.”

But, concedes Matsuura, there is “a need to regain the trust of the people in order to carry on.”

Unfortunately for the likes of commission head, many Japanese still fear and distrust nuclear power. Reports the Citizen’s Nuclear Information Centre: “Our surveys indicate the government’s bid for regaining (public) confidence (about nuclear energy) has not worked.”

Still, Japan is currently drawing up a new, long-term energy policy that experts say will represent a modest change in the expansion of nuclear energy.

For instance, although the government will continue to develop nuclear plants it plans to scale back to 13 the planned 16 to 20 new plants to be built by 2010.

The new plan also calls for heavier investments to deal with the disposal of radioactive waste and stresses the need to address safety questions to regain public trust.

Meantime, Tokaimura residents remain concerned about further nuclear accidents despite the closure of the plant following the 1999 incident, says the Kyod News Service, which recently conducted a telephone survey there.

Then again, such fears may have been triggered by plans to reopen a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant there. Full-scale operations at the facility are expected to start this month.

Green groups have been in an uproar over the move. But many respondents in the Kyodo news service said that while they cannot shake the fear of another mishap, they really have no choice but to “accept” the plant. Said one resident: “We have no other option. We need them.”

But Tokaichi University professor Michiako Furukawa told the press recently, “I am particularly afraid of an accident in the reprocessing nuclear plant, which is set to start operations soon.”

The academic says he is not die-hard anti-nuclear activist. But he says it must be pointed out that many of Japan’s nuclear power plants are now more than 30 years old.

According to Furukawa, this “age” was once considered a plant’s operating limit, although he also said experts have since adjusted that to 50 years.

Stresses Furukawa: “There is uncertainty with nuclear energy. The decision to pursue energy is not worth it.”

Copyright (c) 2000. Inter Press Service. All rights reserved.