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One of Japan's opportunities to tap cleaner, cheaper energy and reduce dependence on imported oil has run into a problem: millions of naked bathers.

The dispute is over deep-underground volcanically heated water that geothermal power plants would tap to generate electricity. Japan, with nearly a tenth of the world's active volcanoes, also has thousands of hot spring resorts whose owners oppose plans to siphon off steaming mineral waters.

"Developers say geothermal plants don't affect hot springs, but if something goes wrong, it's our responsibility to prove cause and effect," said Toyoshiro Kawazu, managing director of Hizenya Hotel Group, whose family owns a 300-year-old spa on Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's four main islands.

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While geothermal power projects may help cut the country's $183-billion (U.S.) bill for imported fuel, owners of Japan's 7,700 spa resorts say baths could dry up, damaging an industry that attracted 137 million bathers last year. No spas have reported damage from geothermal plants, though owners say that's because it's difficult to prove and reporting problems may drive away customers.

"We can't dig down 1,000 metres to prove they're at fault," Mr. Kawazu said.

Mr. Kawazu won a five-year battle in 2002 with one of Japan's largest power companies, Electric Power Development Co. The company withdrew plans for a geothermal plant on Kyushu after Mr. Kawazu and local residents refused to sell land for the ¥17-billion ($166-million Canadian) project.

With oil prices rising more than 60 per cent in the last 12 months through July and concerns over greenhouse gases rising, power companies are reluctant to give up on geothermal energy.

Resource-poor Japan imports 99 per cent of its oil. Oil-powered plants produce 742 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour of energy, compared with just 15 grams for geothermal.

"Geothermal energy is abundant in our volcanic country and can produce power with less greenhouse gas emissions," said Nobuyoshi Soma, chairman of the Japan Mining Industry Association, which wants government help to develop geothermal plants.

Geothermal is cheaper, as well. It costs more than ¥20 (20 cents) to produce one kilowatt of power from oil-fired plants, compared with ¥8.3 for geothermal, according to figures from Japan's New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization.

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Japan has 19 geothermal power plants, mostly in the northern and southern regions, where most of the spa, or onsen, resorts are concentrated.

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