Japan is to abandon plans to expand its nuclear power industry and make renewables a key part of its energy policy, the prime minister, Naoto Kan, said as the country marked two months since the tsunami disaster.
As workers continued efforts to stabilise the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, Kan said he would “start from scratch” a policy that initially envisaged nuclear making up more than 50% of Japan’s energy needs by 2030.
Japan, whose 54 nuclear reactors provide 30% of its electricity, had planned to build at least 14 new reactors over the next 20 years, but policymakers accept that will be impossible in light of the Fukushima crisis.
Kan said that renewables, which make up 20% of overall supply, would have a bigger role to play in meeting the country’s energy needs. “I think it is necessary to move in the direction of promoting natural energy and renewable energy such as wind, solar and biomass,” he said.
The stronger commitment to renewables marks Kan’s second sudden shift on nuclear power in the space of a week following his order to close the Hamaoka atomic plant, which sits on an active fault line, while a new tsunami wall is built.
Confronted with low approval ratings and criticism of his handling of the nuclear crisis from inside his own party, the prime minister’s public commitment to nuclear power has markedly weakened in recent days.
But Kan, who will not take his salary until the Fukushima crisis is resolved, said Japan would retain the use of fossil fuel and ruled out an abandonment of nuclear power. “We need to start from scratch,” he said. “We need to make nuclear energy safer and do more to promote renewable energy.”
He added: “I believe the government bears a major responsibility for having promoted nuclear energy as national policy. I apologise to the people for failing to prevent the nuclear accident.”
His announcement came as the first of tens of thousands of nuclear evacuees were allowed to return home for two hours to collect clothes and other personal items.
About 100 residents of Kawauchi village – a small portion of those who will make similar trips in the coming weeks – were each permitted to fill one large bag with belongings.
Dressed in protective suits, goggles and facemasks, the residents were given personal radiation monitors and walkie-talkies as they made their short but emotional return home for the first time in weeks. They were taken out of the zone on chartered government buses and screened for radiation exposure.
About 80,000 people within 20km of the Fukushima Daiichi plant were forced out of their homes by the accident and have yet to be told when they will be able to return permanently.
The plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), has vowed to stabilise radiation levels and achieve safe “cold shutdown” of the plant’s damaged reactors within six to nine months.