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After Fukushima, Nuclear Power on Collision Course With Japanese Public

In the face of overwhelming public opposition, Japan's prime minister recently announced that nuclear power plants will restart.

On March 11, 2011, Japan was hit by a massive earthquake--measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale –and a tsunami with waves up to 65 feet high, leading to a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. As a result, Japan's 54 nuclear power plants were taken offline for safety checks. The last one was powered down on May 5, 2012.

But in May, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, in the face of overwhelming public opposition, decided to restart Japan's nuclear power plants. Now, a growing movement is protesting the decision.

Weekly demonstrations, with turnout initially numbering in the hundreds, have been taking place on Friday evenings in front of the Prime Minister's office. People show up after work and school. And their numbers have been swelling, reaching into the thousands in recent weeks.

Japan is the third-largest consumer of nuclear energy, after the U.S. and France, and is followed by Russia and Germany. Japan is also the world's third largest economy. Nuclear power plants generate about 30% of Japan's energy needs. During the shutdown of its nuclear power plants, utility companies have turned to coal, oil and gas to supply electricity to industries and households.

Additionally, Japan, already the world's biggest importer of liquefied natural gas (LNG) bought record amounts of LNG last year to replace the nuclear energy.

Last July, former Prime Minister Naoto Kan called for a nuclear phase-out and proposed drawing a new energy strategy that reduces Japan’s reliance on nuclear generated electricity. He proposed scrapping plans for 34 new nuclear power plants and questioned whether private companies should run nuclear power plants. Kan also said that Japan should work to increase renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, and recently told the AP that the Fukushima disaster has "turned him into a believer of renewable energy."

Kan was succeeded by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda on September 2, 2011. In his first speech, delivered that day, Prime Minister Noda – the fiscally conservative former Minister of Finance — announced that Japan will continue to phase out nuclear power plants, building neither new plants nor extending the licenses of existing plants.

But he also announced that existing nuclear power plants would be restarted after safety checks.

On May 30, 2012, the Union of Kansai Governments, an organization consisting of representatives from local authorities in the region including Fukui, gave its approval for a restart of the two reactors at the Oi nuclear power plant. The district is on the western coast of Honshu, Japan's main island.

More importantly, the reactors are in Japan's "nuclear alley," which includes 13 of the country's 54 reactors, and supplies the nearby industrial city of Osaka with power.

Nonetheless, most of the local governments are not in favor or a restart. Only two of 11 municipal governments within an 18-miles radius of the plants support a restart, according to a recent survey by Kyodo.

In response to the May 30 decision, up to 1,000 anti-nuclear protestors gathered outside the Prime Minister's office on Friday, June 1, beating drums and chanting against the restart as part of the growing weekly Friday demonstrations. But on June 16, Prime Minister Noda gave final approval to the plans to restart the two reactors at Oi. Although the restart does not need local approval, he sought to rally it in order to secure consensus.

Yet the public remains staunchly opposed to nuclear energy in Japan. Since March, weekly demonstrations have taken place on Fridays at 6pm in front of the Prime Minister's office.

According to Aileen Mioko Smith of Green Action, a Japan-based organization working to end nuclear power, "the demonstrations started out with 500, then several thousand and have now even reached 150,000. Each week, they have grown."

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