January 3, 2013 1:43 pm

Japan prepares for nuclear U-turn

Japan’s plan for a nuclear-free society, which gathered momentum after the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima nearly two years ago, looks set to be shortlived.

Since its electoral landslide in December, the Liberal Democratic party has wasted no time in setting the stage for a return to Japan’s former policy of promoting nuclear power as a major source of energy generation.

Shinzo Abe, who took over as prime minister last month, has given a clear indication that the government is looking to build new nuclear power plants, despite widespread public reservations in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima accident, the world’s worst nuclear disaster in a quarter of a century.

“The new nuclear power plants we will build will be completely different from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant which caused the accident, and those that were built 40 years ago,” Mr Abe said in a television appearance this week.

“We are likely to build new nuclear power plants on winning the public’s understanding,” he said.

Mr Abe’s comments came after Toshimitsu Motegi, his economy, trade and industry minister, said he would re-evaluate the previous administration’s ban on building new nuclear reactors.

The LDP’s pro-nuclear stance is a reversal of the previous administration’s commitment to phase out Japan’s dependence on nuclear energy by 2040, made in response to public fears about the safety of nuclear power.

A survey conducted by the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper, just before the elections last month, showed that more than 60 per cent wanted to phase out nuclear energy completely.

In response to public concerns, the previous government halted all but two of the country’s 50 nuclear reactors and ordered them to undergo stringent safety inspections before being restarted.


In depth


Japan nuclear


After the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi facility in 2011 anti-nuclear sentiment is growing as demonstrators challenge the government’s attempts to restart the country’s nuclear industry

During December’s lower-house elections, the LDP, which was the architect of Japan’s nuclear policy, appeared to signal a reassessment of its previous pro-nuclear stance.

In its statement outlining its election pledges, the LDP conceded that its pro-nuclear energy policy had been flawed and apologised for causing the Fukushima nuclear accident.

The LDP, which had talked in the past about raising Japan’s dependence on nuclear energy from nearly 30 per cent to as much as 50 per cent, pledged during the elections “to establish a social and economic structure that does not need to depend on nuclear power”.

By promising to pour resources into promoting alternative energy development and to develop an optimal energy mix over the next decade “the LDP kept their position on nuclear energy ambiguous before the elections”, says Norimichi Hattori of the Tokyo-based Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes.

But “since the Abe administration was formed, their rhetoric on nuclear power has changed quite rapidly”, says Koichi Nakano, professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo.

“It now looks like the LDP feels it is their duty to promote nuclear energy,” Mr Nakano says.

In the short term, Japan’s new government may want to avoid taking concrete steps, such as restarting more reactors, which could prove controversial in the run-up to upper-house elections this July.

Winning a majority in the upper house, which is controlled by the opposition, is an important objective for Mr Abe, who is keen to realise his pet projects of educational and constitutional reform.

“There isn’t much time before the upper-house elections, so they have to drive carefully,” says Mr Hattori at the Coalition Against Nukes.

What is more, the Nuclear Regulation Authority, the industry watchdog, will not publish its new safety standards, which will be the basis for restarting reactors, until July.

A key test of the government’s determination to revive nuclear energy use will come this spring when the NRA is scheduled to announce its verdict on whether or not the Oi nuclear power plant in northwestern Japan is sitting on an active faultline.

The Oi power plant houses the only two reactors currently operating in Japan.

While the NRA has said it will recommend that Oi be shut down if it determines that it is on an active faultline, the final decision will be a political one.

If the government allows nuclear plants to remain switched off, it would be admitting that nuclear power is not critical to economic recovery, says Mr Nakano, who believes there is a chance the Abe administration will give Oi the go-ahead regardless of the NRA’s decision.

Given the LDP’s close ties to the nuclear industry and its history of promoting nuclear power, the Abe administration cannot afford to have the public realise that Japan can get along just fine without nuclear power, Mr Nakano says.

“I think that is what they are most afraid of,” he adds.

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