Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan was recently quoted as seeing a nuclear-free future for his nation. But unlike similar pronouncements from Germany, which pledges to be nuclear-free by 2022, Japan may become nuclear-free literally within a year.
That would be quite a feat for a country that only five months ago relied on nuclear plants for about 30 percent of its electrical power.
By some measures, the country is already two thirds of the way to becoming nuclear-free. As of July 29, 38 of the country's 54 reactors were shut down, with more shutdowns imminent, and there are no dates set for their return to service.
Aside from the irretrievably damaged reactors at the Fukushima power plant, reactors have been shut down across Japan for maintenance checks. The only problem is that once the nuclear plants are shut down, none have been restarted, as local governments have balked against their reopening.
By law, all Japanese reactors must be temporarily shut down for maintenance every 13 months. All of currently operating reactors have maintenance scheduled by next spring. As a result, if the present pattern of indefinite shutdowns after maintenance inspections continues, Japan could effectively be nuclear-free by next spring.
But will the lights go out on the world's third largest economy when that happens? Even with boosting hydrocarbon-based power generation to the hilt, the Japanese government estimates that it will still be at least 10 percent short of peak power demand expected for next summer.
If, however, you look at Tokyo this summer, there is reason for the Japanese to be optimistic. When the March 11 tsunami knocked out more than half the nuclear power plants servicing Tokyo, the 30-million person metropolis lost about one fifth of its power supply just as it was heading into the peak summer power season. But there have been no power shortages in Tokyo this summer, despite the sweltering heat.
The reason is setsuden, the Japanese word for power conservation. It's suddenly the new watchword of post-Fukushima Japan. And this new mantra of energy conservation mandates as much of a change in the practices of Japanese business and the lifestyles of Japanese households as the OPEC oil shocks did three decades ago.
From convincing staid Japanese businessmen to stop wearing suits and turning down the office air conditioning to closing the energy-sucking visitors gallery of the Tokyo Stock Exchange, the Japanese government is asking for 15- to 20-percent power cuts from the board rooms of the country's powerful corporate sector. And it is asking no less in power savings from the Japanese in their homes.
As setsuni continues to pare back the power requirements of the Japanese economy, maybe the country won't need the power from the 54 reactors that it might mothball by next year.
If so, setsuden isn't just an energy solution for Japan.