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A man prays beside lanterns placed at the waterfront in Tokyo Bay to mark the first anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami which devastated northeast Japan. (Greg Baker/AP/Greg Baker/AP)
A man prays beside lanterns placed at the waterfront in Tokyo Bay to mark the first anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami which devastated northeast Japan. (Greg Baker/AP/Greg Baker/AP)

Nervous about nuclear, post-tsunami Japan looks to Canada for energy Add to ...

Japan has rebuilt the highways, but villages and towns swept away by an earthquake and tsunami a year ago are harder to re-establish. And the wider effects will continue to be felt across the country for years.

Among them is a Canadian link. The nuclear-plant meltdown caused by the disaster has Japan rethinking nuclear energy, and that makes the country more keenly interested in Western Canadian pipelines that might one day bring natural gas to be shipped overseas to Asia.

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The disaster killed 19,000, devastated towns in eastern Japan, and caused meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant that kept the island nation on tenterhooks – and have made its people wary of relying on nuclear energy in the future.

Japan’s ambassador to Canada, Kaoru Ishikawa, said the highways have been rebuilt, and major companies have been able to repair and restart factories in the affected zones of eastern Japan. The government has offered tax incentives for companies to invest and financial assistance to individuals, but there is still a struggle to rebuild lives in many communities.

“The largest challenge is how to rebuild communities,” he said. “People are brave in northern Japan, so fishermen are trying to go back to the sea. Yet what does it mean that whole villages and towns are gone? Houses, companies, bank branches, factories.”

Across Japan, another impact has been a backlash against nuclear energy. The country is experiencing power shortages as not just Fukushima but other nuclear plants have been shut down. Officlally, the shutdowns are temporary, but many believe Japan will never rely so heavily on its 54 nuclear plants again.

The nuclear meltdowns at three reactors in the Fukushima plant were caused when a tsunami knocked out emergency power generation at a plant that was believed to have been built to withstand the quakes and tsunamis that Japan has suffered many times. But the 2011 tsunami was bigger than any seen for more than 1,000 years, since 869, and led to a disaster that the Japanese government once believed was beyond imagination.

“What lesson can we draw from that? My political leaders said, ‘We won’t use the words ‘beyond imagination’ any more,’ ” said Mr. Ishikawa.

Before the disaster, roughly 30 per cent of Japan’s electricity was provided by nuclear power. Since then, most of the country’s nuclear reactors have been shut for stress tests and scrutiny, and it’s widely believed some may never re-open. It is unclear if the public will let reliance on nuclear continue. And Japan has posted record trade deficits as it has been forced to import more energy.

Now Japan, already the biggest importer of Canadian coal, is hoping to find new suppliers of the liquid natural gas, or LNG, that fuels about 30 per cent of the country’s power. Mr. Ishikawa said he must be careful not to interfere in Canada’s own debates about pipelines and exports, but Japan is obviously watching with interest the progress of pipelines that might, as early as 2015, carry Canadian natural gas to be converted to liquid on the B.C. coast, and shipped to Asia.

“Of course we should also think of the cost of importing LNG and other resources and how to diversify the countries from which we buy those energy [products]” he said.

“Of course there is a general wish in my country that we want to import energy resources from your country,” he added. “We are already importing uranium, coal, and then why not LNG? LNG would be very important for us.”

For the time being, Japan has dealt with a shortage of power with conservation measures, setting thermostats to use air conditioning only at temperatures above 28 degrees and advising workers to stay cool by not wearing neckties. But those, Mr. Ishikawa said, were emergency-style measures, and Japan will have to accommodate a new reality as it decides an energy policy for the future.

In the meantime, the rebuilding of communities will go on, and Japan’s ambassador has made an effort to thank Canadians who raised $50-million for the victims, the children who baked cookies for sale and folded paper cranes for good wishes, and the people who left bouquets at the gates of his embassy.

Despite recession, Japan has a big, wealthy economy, and the country does not need the type of financial aid that disaster-stricken developing countries have received. But Mr. Ishikawa points to things like exchange programs for high-school students from the stricken zones to come to Canada, as an example of the support Canadians can continue to offer.

“Maybe, it’s not to forget,” he said. “On the human side, showing the victims or survivors that they are not alone, that someone is standing by them.”

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