Global Insight

September 16, 2012 4:19 pm

Noda’s nuclear phase-out is not final word

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Japan’s ‘decisive’ new energy policy will delight no one

What Japan needs, says Yoshihiko Noda, its prime minister, is “decisive politics that makes the necessary decisions without delays and procrastination”.

So Mr Noda may have been a little embarrassed by the repeated delays and procrastination that marked his government’s efforts to draw up a new energy policy – a process marked by repeated failures to decide even when the plan should be decided.

Then, on Friday – a full 18 months after meltdowns at the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant blew a giant hole in Japan’s old atomic-heavy plan – the government finally unveiled a new policy.

It even looked pretty decisive. Under it, the government declared, “every policy resource will be brought to bear” to phase out nuclear power by 2040.

Yet the policy is also a somewhat messy compromise that will delight nobody. A generally pro-nuclear business establishment has been partly mollified by the opening of the way for the restart of currently idled nuclear plants – only two of Japan’s 50 remaining reactors are currently in operation – but it remains deeply concerned about long-term power supply and furious about the phase-out’s implications for exports of nuclear technology.

Meanwhile, the anti-nuclear activists who have flocked in their thousands to unprecedented weekly protests outside Mr Noda’s office all fiercely oppose any reactor restarts, never mind the prospect that plants will be kept humming across the earthquake-prone archipelago for decades.

Their outrage will be deepened by plans to press ahead with a plutonium-producing fuel reprocessing programme, not to mention suggestions at the weekend from Yukio Edano, the economy minister, that the government hopes to complete and operate nuclear plants under construction before the March 2011 disaster.

None of this means the policy is stupid. Restarting reactors balances the hopefully much reduced risk of another accident against the huge cost of premature decommissioning. It also gives Japan a chance to ramp up the renewable energy sector that optimists hope will take up the post-nuclear power slack.

In addition, the phase-out recognises a public swing against nuclear power that had made construction of new plants inconceivable in the near term.

Still, cynics will wonder whether the new policy is much more than a fudge that balances anti-nuclear sentiment with the short-term desire to get idled plants back in operation. The policy will certainly have real-world implications – fuelling investor enthusiasm for renewables, for example, and chilling any remaining desire among bright young Japanese for a career in nuclear engineering. Yet it is far from clear how binding it will be.

Not least, most political analysts expect Mr Noda to be forced by parliamentary gridlock to call an election by early next year at the latest. The vote will almost certainly mean the end of rule by his now deeply unpopular Democratic Party of Japan.

Its likely successor, the Liberal Democratic party, is generally more enthusiastic about nuclear power. While the LDP may not want to challenge the new policy directly, given the public mood, it will hardly treat it as a sacred text.

Determination to abandon nuclear power could also be undermined by economic factors. If renewable alternatives develop more slowly than hoped, and remain more expensive, the public mood could shift. The fact that Japan sailed through a hot summer with only two reactors and no blackouts has reassured some that nuclear power is not needed. But David Rea, of Capital Economics, points out that this was only partly because of voluntary power saving and businesses using their own generators.

“The main reason was weakness in the economy, and that is not something we would hope would continue in the long run,” he says in a research note. “As such, a false picture was created of whether a prospering, growing Japanese economy can exist without nuclear power.”

The business establishment will seize on worries about the economy. And Japan’s “nuclear village” of pro-atomic energy utilities, contractors, politicians, bureaucrats and academics still has huge potential influence. The vast sums that resource-poor Japan spends on imported fossil fuel is an argument on its own. Any renewal of public attention to climate change – a subject largely pushed aside since the disaster – would create another strong reason to reconsider nuclear.

It is a long way to 2040 – more than two dozen Japanese prime ministerships at the recent rate of political churn. Mr Noda’s government may have made its decision. But it will certainly not be the last word.

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