Japan is understandably skittish about nuclear energy, but that hasn't stopped Prime Minister Yoshihoko Noda from claiming that the stuff is necessary to save the economy. Because after relying heavily on nuclear, it seems improbable that Japan could get back on track without running any nuclear plants at all. But it may actually possible for Japan to permanently shut down its nuclear plants by 2012 without sacrificing the economy or increasing greenhouse gas emissions--though it will cost approximately $280 billion in investments by 2020.
A study from Greenpeace (PDF), which uses data from the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies and the German Aerospace Center, outlines a scenario where Japan massively ramps up its solar and wind capacity up from 3,700 MW today to 47,200 MW by 2013, while load reduction strategies (i.e special pricing for peak energy demand times) slash energy demand by 11,000 MW, or the equivalent of 10 to 12 nuclear reactors. At the same time, gas power plants could be used when wind and solar power aren't readily available.
This is, of course, an incredibly ambitious plan. It would require Japan to install 1,000 new wind turbines every year and increase the current solar photovoltaic market by a factor of five. But the scenario could potentially triple energy sector jobs to 326,000 by 2013, all while ensuring that the country keeps its pre-Fukushima pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25% below 1990 levels by 2020. And solar PV prices are falling dramatically (over 50% in the last year alone in Europe), so rapidly increasing solar installations over the next few years won't be nearly as much of a financial burden as it would have been in the past.
It's difficult to imagine that Japan will follow Greenpeace's recommendations; after all, the country simply wants to get back to the status quo at this point. Instead, we might look to Germany as an example of what happens when you decide to shut down nuclear plants; the country hopes to shutter all of its plants by 2022 as a result of the Japan disaster. The question is: can this be done without dramatically increasing CO2 emissions from coal plants in the near term? If it can, then Japan might have a chance.
[Images: Wikipedia, Greenpeace]