STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Here's a stunning fact we came across as the anniversary of Japan's tsunami and nuclear disaster approaches. Of Japan's nuclear plants, only two of 54 reactors are currently active one year after the disaster. To talk about the implications of this, we've called Kenneth Cukier. He is Tokyo correspondent for The Economist magazine. He's on the line.
Welcome to the program.
KENNETH CUKIER: Hi, there.
INSKEEP: Didn't Japan get something like one-third of its energy from nuclear power, its electricity from nuclear power before the disaster?
CUKIER: That's absolutely right. It did.
INSKEEP: And so how do you go about running one of the most advanced economies in the world without almost all of those reactors?
CUKIER: Well, the reactors closed over time. They didn't happen all at once. Of course, there's Fukushima. It went into a shutdown and then it went into a meltdown. But for the other reactors, what happens is they go through scheduled maintenance far quicker than in other countries. It's every 13 months here. So as a result, as over time, new reactors were going through their scheduled maintenance and were being shut down for that maintenance; they need to get the approval of the local governors in order to restart, and the local governors would not give it that approval.
Local people are deeply uneasy with the state of the regulation and the surveillance of the nuclear industry, have expressed that, and the local governors have not signed on.
INSKEEP: So what is business, industry, government doing to get electricity then?
CUKIER: Well, business - it wants the energy to restart and the government wants the energy to restart, but the people don't – not because they don't have trust and faith in the nuclear power; they don't have trust and faith in the government. Business, in response, has basically said we need reliable energy and we need inexpensive energy, and if we don't get that we're going to go abroad.
Now, Japan's industry has been going abroad for years - that's part of globalization.
They're accelerating that, in part because of a lack of energy – reliable, inexpensive energy. Companies had to change what they're doing. For example, last summer many businesses worked Saturdays and Sundays but took Tuesdays and Wednesdays off. They could balance the energy load that way.
INSKEEP: Although, still, I mean one-third of the country's electricity is going away? Are they finding replacements for some of that?
CUKIER: They have found replacements that are non-nuclear. So Japan, of course, is teaming with coal and LNG, liquid natural gas, and oil power plants, some of them which were not at capacity, others which were actually decommissioned but not dismantled. They've got it back into working condition and it started pumping out more energy.
INSKEEP: What are the downsides of burning more coal and natural gas?
CUKIER: The biggest downside psychologically is that the country that names(ph) the Kyoto Accords now has to not meet its commitment by pumping lots of fossil fuel.
INSKEEP: Isn't some of the natural gas coming from Russia, which has some political implications, geopolitical implications?
CUKIER: Massive. Prior to March 11, Japan had been trying to retreat a little bit from Russia because it's an unpredictable country and you want to be self-sufficient. But since March 11, and because the nuclear power has gone away pretty much, they've had to increase their imports of liquid natural gas and the result is that they're getting closer to a country that they'd rather have at arm's length.
INSKEEP: Well, given that Japan has fought in the last century, or a little more, a couple of different wars against Russia for dominance in that part of the world, are there Japanese who are beginning to say, you know, this is really not good, maybe we ought to let some nuclear plants reopen?
CUKIER: It is an argument that's being made, but the Japanese authorities have done nothing to ensure that people should have confidence in the nuclear system. But what's essential and what's happening right now is for the first time in modern Japanese history, you can really see one movement that's broadly supported throughout the country, which is close the nukes until we have confidence - not in nuclear power, but in the government, that they're going to make it safe.
INSKEEP: Kenneth Cukier is Japan correspondent for The Economist. Thanks very much.
CUKIER: Yeah, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.