Japan Reconsiders Nuclear Power and the Monju Fast-Breeder Reactor—Or Maybe Not

The difficulty of changing Japan's decades-old nuclear-centric energy policy was in evidence this week. On Tuesday, Environment Minister Satsuki Eda, a member of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), warned that CO2 emissions will jump 16% from 1990 levels if all of the country's nuclear power plants are shut down and replaced by fossil fuel-burning power generation. This would gut Japan's Kyoto Protocol pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 6% from 1990 levels by 2012.

But then on Wednesday, Prime Minister Naoto Kan pledged to try to "achieve a society that can fully support itself without nuclear power," without giving details or mentioning the environmental implications.

This announcement surprised Kan's Cabinet. And on Thursday, Chief Cabinet Secretary and DPJ member Yukio Edano explained that Kan's pledge is "a hope for the distant future" rather than official policy.

The government was backpedaling again on Friday when Science and Technology Minister Yoshiaki Takaki, another DPJ member, told reporters that the Cabinet is considering the option of halting development of the Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor, currently being refurbished after a 1995 accident and cover-up. This news surprised the governor of Fukui Prefecture, which hosts Monju. The governor told reporters he was assured by the minister that the government would listen "to what the local people have to say." Fukui Prefecture's 14 nuclear reactors are mainstays of the economy.