Increasing numbers of nuclear reactors are being kept off-line in Japan as local governments respond to public fears about safety in the wake of the Fukushima meltdowns.

Poten and Partners told a conference session of the US Association of Energy Economists October 10 that all but 10 of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors are now off-line. Only 16 of those were affected by the March earthquake and tsunami, he said.

The other 28 either were off line for routine maintenance and refueling when the quake hit, or have come down for outages since then. But once these reactors were shut down, Miyazaki said, operators have been unable to get what used to be routine approval from local governments to restart.

That’s left the country with only 17% of its nuclear capacity on line. The nation’s 54 units represent 30% of Japan’s electric generating capacity.

Miyazaki said political turmoil and changes in the national government have created uncertainty in the political debate, but he thinks the new government may be more realistic about Japan’s choices. The country imports virtually all fossil fuels, including additional oil, natural gas and coal to make up for some of the lost nuclear generation.

The nation has also been on a severe energy efficiency diet, trying to reduce electricity usage. That effort will continue through the winter, Miyazaki said.

He said Japan has been lucky so far that there is surplus liquefied natural gas available. US consumption is falling because of shale discoveries, and new gasification facilities, such as those in Qatar, have been coming on line.

But, said Miyazaki, with the nuclear shutdowns Japan has added 10-15 million metric tons per day to its 70 million ton consumption, and that could leave the economy “struggling” if prices rise.

He said the new national government shows signs of being “more realistic,” and said Japan must look at its energy options in an integrated way, reaching beyond the fears of Fukushima. “You can’t separate nuclear and natural gas,” he said.

Photo Caption: United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (front right) listens to Soma city mayor Hidekiyo Tachiya (front left) while visiting the tsunami devastated area of Soma city, Fukushima prefecture on August 8, 2011. UN chief Ban Ki-moon visited the Fukushima nuclear disaster zone becoming one of the most senior foreign leaders to go near the crippled atomic power plant in Japan’s northeast.