Regulators and members of the Diet, Japan's parliament, are still investigating the true cause of one of the severest nuclear accidents in human history. Some experts -- including Mitsuhiko Tanaka, a former nuclear technician -- suspect the reactors had been destroyed by strong tremors from the 9.0 quake and were out of control even before the tsunami swept away the backup diesel power generators needed to cool the plant's fissile material. A large question mark remains over the wisdom of continuing to run dozens of nuclear plants across the quake-prone archipelago.
So why the rush to re-embrace a nuclear future? The answers are money and the lack of any better option. Japan's government and industries have heavily invested in nuclear power since the mid-1960s, and as the 1970s oil crisis hit an economy dependent on energy imports, construction of nuclear power plants was accelerated in rural and coastal areas like Fukushima and Fukui.
Before the Fukushima accident, Japan's power companies operated 54 nuclear reactors, which provided about 30 percent of the country's electricity needs. Renewable energy accounts for only 1 percent, reflecting the government's and the utilities' reluctance -- in light of such a "successful" nuclear industry -- to develop solar, biomass, micro-hydro, wind, and geothermal power. This preference for nuclear power led to a 2010 government plan to add 14 reactors to meet the country's projected energy needs in 2030, which would have brought the proportion of nuclear power up to 50 percent of Japan's energy mix.
During the summer of 2011, when the Fukushima plant was still smoldering, the power companies scaled back operations, reducing the number of functioning nuclear reactors to fewer than 18. To replace idle reactors, they brought back online half-retired coal and natural gas plants. A feared major power shortage did not materialize, partly because the government required factories and offices to cut 15 percent of energy use and urged people to save as much as possible.
In the following months, another dozen reactors were stopped, many for regular checkup and maintenance mandated every 13 months. Today, only two of Japan's 54 reactors are still functioning, and it is expected that by late April, no reactor will be operational as concerned local communities block restarts. The government warns that the country will soon face a dire power shortage this summer, a view echoed by utility companies.
Energy economics is not the only rationale for the push to restart the nuclear plants. There are powerful political forces at work, determined to keep the nuclear fire burning in Japan. They form a formidable complex often referred to as the "nuclear power village," representing utilities, bureaucrats, politicians, and academics.
Japan's 10 regional power companies have enjoyed a cozy and lucrative relationship with the powerful Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) and have been granted monopolies over generation and distribution of electricity in their designated turfs. Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), operator of the crippled Fukushima nuclear plants, is the largest among them. In return, these power companies, their spinoffs, and the industry's organizations have hired hundreds of government officials upon their retirement from METI and other ministries. Currently, TEPCO employs the former chief of the Natural Resources and Energy Agency (a METI arm in charge of selecting locations for nuclear plants) and a former METI director as top advisors.
The industry has also made generous donations to politicians and nuclear scientists who have functioned as their cheerleaders. In 2009, roughly 60 TEPCO executives, from the chairman to nuclear power plant chiefs, collectively donated 6.5 million yen (approximately $80,000) in total to the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that governed the country for nearly 55 consecutive years and promoted nuclear power. It was a drop in the bucket for one of the world's largest utility giants. Politicians, however, say what they really appreciate is not the executives' donations, but the company's bountiful purchase of their fundraising party tickets. On Jan. 1, the major national daily newspaper Asahi Shimbun reported that the power industry provided 85 million yen (approximately $1 million) in research assistance over the past five years to two dozen nuclear scientists who served as members of the Nuclear Safety Commission, a supervising panel for government regulators.