Last year's tsunami-triggered disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power complex forced evacuation of more than 160,000 and contaminated huge swaths of territory north of Tokyo. Prior to the accident, nuclear plants provided nearly a third of Japan's power generation, and the government had planned to increase that proportion to more than half.
In unveiling the new policy, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda acknowledged that the vast majority of Japanese support the zero option on nuclear power. The new blueprint calls for investing almost $500 billion over the next two decades to expand renewable sources like wind and solar power, the NHK broadcast network reported.
The energy plan sets forward a three-pronged approach to phasing out nuclear power generation after the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami that inundated the Fukushima plant and set off the worst nuclear accident since the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986 in Ukraine.
A 40-year limit has been set on operation of existing plants, construction of new nuclear-generation facilities is prohibited and any further restarts of Japan's 48 idled nuclear plants will be contingent on their meeting strengthened safety standards to be adopted by a newly created independent regulatory agency.
Japan's anti-nuclear movement swelled after the Fukushima disaster. Opposition to nuclear power became more vocal this summer when the government authorized the restart of two plants in Ohi, serving the populous areas around Kyoto and Osaka. A nationwide shutdown after the Fukushima accident put all 50 remaining nuclear plants offline pending safety improvements and inspections.
Public opinion polls have indicated that more than 70% of Japanese support ending nuclear energy production in Japan, and public hearings in recent months were dominated by voices against resuming nuclear production. Large crowds of anti-nuclear demonstrators have also appeared outside the prime minister's home and offices on a weekly basis.
Business leaders opposed a change in policy. The Federation of Electric Power Companies deemed the phase-out decision "very regrettable," warning that it will raise energy prices for business and consumers and, at least in the near future, increase greenhouse gas emissions as the country relies more on fossil fuels until renewables can be expanded.
Greenpeace Japan urged the government to give the new energy policy the force of law, to avoid it becoming mere "lip service" to appease the public ahead of elections expected later this year.
Japan is already the world's largest importer of liquefied natural gas and is expected to increase reliance on that source as it phases out nuclear energy.
--Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles
Photo: Anti-nuclear demonstrators have gathered every Friday for months outside the residence of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, depicted on the placard held by this protester that blames the government leader for last year's devastating accident at the Fukushima nuclear complex. Credit: Kimimasa Mayama/European Pressphoto Agency