METI faces reform in energy policy revamp

by Miya Tanaka

Kyodo

As the government gears up to hammer out a new energy policy, the industry ministry, which supervises utilities, faces the daunting task of reforming itself under a new government and regaining the public’s trust after the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

In the current antinuclear climate, breaking the fetters of industry lobbies and enhancing transparency in decision-making will be crucial in determineing whether METI — the ministry of economy, trade and industry — can win public support for a new energy policy that will be devised by it and a unit under the direct control of whoever happens to be prime minister at the time.

Experts, however, express doubts that the oft-criticized collusive ties between the ministry and the power industry can be easily broken.

The bar is already set high, with criticism simmering over METI’s handling of the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant. Furthermore, a plan to spinoff the nuclear regulatory body is already perceived as lacking independence, and METI officials’ are thought to have pressured utilities to sway public opinion in favor of nuclear power.

Despite the looming end of Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s term, some changes are under way.

Against the headwinds, trade minister Banri Kaieda decided in early August to fire three of his top bureaucrats and create a fresh lineup for a landmark shift to scale back nuclear power.

METI’s new leadership would also be tasked with pushing for policies that may meet resistance from the power industry, such as the issue of separating the electricity generation business from the transmission business to create a competitive environment in the electric power sector and lure new power suppliers.

But neither a personnel change nor the planned separation of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency from METI will likely restore public confidence in an institution that blindly touted the safety of atomic power for decades, experts say.

“There is a distrust in decisions reached inside a community of nuclear specialists from the industry, the government office and the academic world,” said Ichiro Sakata, a University of Tokyo professor. “So what we need to do is to change the way decisions are made.”

Sakata, a renewable energy policy expert, said the ministry should be more proactive in publicly disclosing “objective data and facts” before the government decides on details of its energy policy.

“Once information, which should be a comparative analysis of various data, is released, it would be scrutinized by experts worldwide, creating a situation in which a biased idea, if any, would easily be pointed out,” he added.

His remarks, however, suggest that it will be difficult to eliminate the influence of the close-knit community of bureaucrats, utilities and academics with vested interests in atomic power, unless this so-called “nuclear power village” comes under external pressure.

METI has not indicated that it is ready to tackle the issue of closed-door policymaking. Its top bureaucrat, Kenyu Adachi, appointed on Aug. 12, said that the tough situation surrounding the ministry could “highly increase the need for reform” and he is willing to help the ministry overcome “various past bonds,” without elaborating.

The need for the ministry to restore smooth communication with whoever succeeds Kan on Monday was also highlighted after ties with the trade ministry soured when the prime minister realized that METI was reluctant to reform Japan’s nuclear power and electricity policies.

Jun Iio, a professor of politics at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, said the next government should enhance its ability to coordinate issues, while the bureaucrats, for their part, should try not to steer the course of the discussions — a common tactic that probably led Kan to distrust them.

When the power-generating capacity of manufacturers and other private companies started drawing attention as a way to deal with the threat of power shortages around July, Kan ordered METI to reinvestigate the amount of surplus power available because he didn’t trust the initial estimate, which was lower than he expected.

A government that exposes internal strife can hardly reassure the public, Iio said.

While political leadership is certain to be a key factor in changing the ministry, major environmental group Kiko Network is pessimistic about the next trade minister’s ability to take the initiative.

Although the ruling Democratic Party of Japan has promised that it will shift the government’s center of gravity from the bureaucrats to politicians, the civic group’s director, Kimiko Hirata, said she has not seen a METI chief who has not championed industries’ interests.

“The politicians have acted just as if they are on a conveyer belt prepared by the bureaucrats . . . and I think the next minister is unlikely be an exception,” she said.