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Japan ponders future free of nuclear dependence

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Japan ponders future free of nuclear dependence
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The head of the UN’s nuclear watchdog says the world will continue to generate more, not less, nuclear power – despite the disaster at Fukushima.

Yukiya Amano made the claim during his meeting with the Japanese prime minister Naoto Kan. His host has called for the country to phase out nuclear power, following the crisis provoked by the earthquake and tsunami.

“There are many countries reconsidering the need for nuclear power plants, like Germany for example. But due to issues such as global warming the fact is there’ll be a gradual increase in demand for nuclear energy. So the important thing is that the IAEA is committed to ensuring safety,” said the organisation’s Director General.

On Monday the IAEA’s head visited the site at Fukushima, where he noted the progress made in the clean-up operation. Four of the plant’s six reactors were seriously damaged by the tsunami in March, but it will take another ten years to dismantle them.

The world’s worst nuclear accident in 25 years has put a brake on atomic power in Japan.

As a precaution, or because of damage, only 16 out of 54 reactors in Japan are still working. Public concern has prevented operators from restarting reactors taken out of use for maintenance.

That has led to fears of power shortages that could damage the economy.

Before Fukushima, nuclear energy provided 30 percent of Japan’s electricity. Even nuclear enthusiasts acknowledge their dream of raising that proportion to 50 percent by 2030 is unlikely to be realised.

Significantly, Japanese public opinion has turned its back on nuclear energy. The accident at Fukushima exposed the dangers of radiation. It also revealed the difficulty in bringing damaged reactors under control.

And while people have not been pouring onto the streets in large numbers, opinion polls suggest that 70 percent support the prime minister when he advocates a future less dependent on nuclear power and on oil, while developing more renewable sources of energy.

Analysts say Japan must act fast if it is going to become a world leader in things like solar power and long-life batteries.

The next few weeks will probably see a new law encouraging more renewable energy. But barriers remain to radical change.

Experts say change may depend on the private sector and local government rather than Tokyo.

Notably, the country’s enormous debt, twice its GDP, makes it difficult to release public funds to invest in new technologies.