In a post-Fukushima shift, Japan's government charts a path back to a nuclear future

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Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. After the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant forced the country to rethink its energy strategy. The Japanese government promised to refocus on renewables and took nearly all of the country's 48 nuclear plants offline. They've been offline every since. But this week, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government said Japan plans to restart many of its nuclear power plants provided they meet strict new safety standards. The Wall Street Journal's William Sposato is in Tokyo. He says the government's new draft energy plan carefully avoids specifics in a country that's still deeply divided about nuclear power. William Sposato: The government has said that what they want to do is have nuclear power as a primary resource, not the only one of course, but they want to keep some nuclear power generating facilities. They have not said exactly what percentage that would be and that's going to be a big question going forward. The decision is not really a surprise. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been pushing for nuclear power, although stressing the safety issues. But don't forget that Japan has to import nearly all of its energy needs and so nuclear power has been seen in the past as a vital element and it looks like it's going to come back to that again. Werman: It may not be a surprise to people in Japan but for a lot of people around the world who, right after the Fukushima meltdown, heard that Japan was going to shift away from nuclear power, this does seem kind of surprising. Sposato: Yes, the safety issues are obviously there and a lot of public opinion polls show that people are pretty much evenly split over whether the country should have any nuclear power generation at all. That has proven to be a political problem for the prime minister in trying to get these plans restarted. Werman: How does this plan fit into the overall debate post-Fukushima about future sources of Japan's energy? Sposato: Well, the plan does pave the way for greater use of renewable energy, solar and windpower, and there is some big money behind the renewable industry. Softbank, Mr. Son, who is one of the most dynamic entrepreneurs in Japan, is putting a lot of money into solar plants. But in practical terms, energy experts say that when you add up the numbers, those sources are not really going to be able to make up for a lack of nuclear power. So the only alternative for the country would be to continue to important very large amounts of fossil fuel, natural gas and oil. Werman: But sitting there on the Ring of Fire, as Japan does, they can't really risk another earthquake-produced meltdown can they? What kind of rigor will there be to make sure that these nuclear power plants are not going to meltdown again? Sposato: The new nuclear regulation authority, which was brought in after the Fukushima disaster, has vowed that it will be independent and has a brand new set of rules that it's holding plants to. The head of the NRA has said that plants need to be ready for any eventuality, not just the ones that they could likely expect to see. So, the rules are certainly getting much tougher, at least on paper. But as you say, Japan is very earthquake prone. Werman: Let's say, the predictability of earthquakes aside, does this nuclear regulatory authority in Japan - does it really have teeth? Sposato: I think that's an open question. The head of the agency has been very strong in saying that they're not going to get rushed. There is still, it should be noted, no clear timetable for restarting any of these plants. Up until now, they've shown that they're willing to stand up to the government. At the same time, the government has been careful not to tread too hard and if they were seen to be riding roughshod over the nuclear regulator, that could cause a backlash for them. Werman: You said a moment ago that support in Japan, polls show that it's kind of split, 50/50 between pro and anti-nuke but there was a really growing anti-nuclear movement right after Fukushima. What's become of it? Sposato: That came up fairly recently in, surprisingly, the race for the governor of Tokyo. That doesn't have any direct connection to the nation's nuclear policy but it became a referendum of sorts on that issue because one of the candidates, a former prime minister himself, was running as a clear anti-nuclear candidate. He did disappointingly in the poll itself and some people say that that has helped to embolden the prime minister to go ahead now with this long term energy plan. So the nuclear movement has been strong but hasn't really been able to coalesce, it seems. Werman: William Sposato has been speaking with us from Tokyo. Thanks for your time. Sposato: Thank you.