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Kansai power crunch just political rivalry?

Oi reactor factor tied to Noda's Hashimoto feud

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

The confrontation between the central government and Kansai area leaders over the restart of two nuclear reactors in Oi, Fukui Prefecture, has more to do with the growing power struggle between Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto and Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda than with safety or objective attempts to determine how much electricity will be available this summer.

Since February, Kansai Electric Power Co. has revised downward its projected electricity shortages after being grilled by Hashimoto-appointed critics.

On Tuesday, Kepco said that while it currently stands by its projection of a 15 percent shortage, a combination of purchasing electricity from other suppliers, ramping up natural energy use and instituting curbs on power use might actually shrink the projected shortage to 5 percent.

Meanwhile, the governors of Kyoto and Shiga as well as Hashimoto are critical of the way Noda’s administration is pushing for the Oi reactors’ restart without addressing their detailed safety concerns.

They are also angry the administration and Kepco announced blackout preparations without first consulting independent outside experts who might offer different views.

The reason for these actions, Hashimoto’s supporters and critics suggest, is pure politics.

“Right now, the central government says that, depending on the circumstances, it will have to cut power this summer and that if so, it will be Hashimoto’s fault. But Hashimoto is not responsible for the Oi reactors. The central government and Kepco are,” Tetsunari Iida, head of the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, said in a recent local media interview. He is also a Hashimoto adviser who serves on an Osaka city committee challenging Kepco over its projections of electricity shortages if the Oi reactors remain idled.

“Tokyo is growing increasingly worried about Hashimoto’s rising popularity. Warnings of shortages from politicians and bureaucrats critical of Hashimoto have convinced many in Kansai that Noda’s real aim is to do whatever he can to halt or at least slow Hashimoto’s rise,” said Yuji Yoshitomi, a local freelance journalist who has written critically of Hashimoto.

Lengthy media reports in recent weeks have indicated Hashimoto and his local political group Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka) hope to expand and score big in the next general election and muster enough allies for him to have a shot at the prime ministership. The mayor has repeatedly denied he will campaign in the next Lower House poll, but he hopes 300 soon-to-be-graduates of the political school his group started in late March will run in the next poll for the chamber and 200 of them will land seats.

Osaka Ishin no Kai supporters say they have a virtual lock on more than 50 Diet seats in the Kansai region. New Komeito, which cooperates with Osaka Ishin no Kai to get legislation in the municipal assembly passed and is strong in Kansai, is expected to be a political ally after an election, as is Your Party.

If local groups in other places like Nagoya or Aichi Prefecture that have been Hashimoto supporters also field viable candidates, assuming they can iron out their differences over issues like raising the consumption tax, a ruling coalition with Hashimoto supporters at the center may becomes possible.

In the meantime, however, Hashimoto continues to criticize Noda and Kepco, and continues, if media polls are accurate, to receive growing support for that criticism. Yoshitomi said it’s unlikely the mayor would suffer much political damage for any blackouts this summer.

If the central government does OK restarting the Oi reactors, Hashimoto can tell the public he did what he could and step up his attacks on the already unpopular Noda administration, he added.

Thus Noda is in a bind, pressured by supporters to get the Oi reactors restarted but not wanting a political backlash that forces him to call an election.