For better or worse, Japan might remain nuclear-free forever

by Jochen Legewie

Special To The Japan Times

On May 5, Japan’s last operating nuclear reactor was shut down, turning it into a nuclear energy-free country. The government is working desperately to restart two reactors in the town of Oi in Fukui Prefecture, but the outcome is difficult to predict.

In fact, some think Japan’s nuclear-free status might not only survive the summer of 2012, but become a fact of life forever.

Until a few weeks ago such a scenario seemed unthinkable. The list of arguments for keeping atomic energy is long.

1) Nuclear dependency: Kansai, which is especially dependent on nuclear energy, is facing a shortage of up to 15 percent this summer even with energy-saving measures. Japan overall got 30 percent of its electricity from nuclear power before Fukushima.

2) Industrial resistance: Japan’s business sector, especially the influential Keidanren, is lobbying hard for a quick return to nuclear energy. Manufacturers need secure and affordable energy. Many industries simply cannot afford temporary interruptions and might be forced to move overseas. Most businesses are showing signs of energy-conservation fatigue. Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association Chairman Toshiyuki Shiga has already hinted that the auto industry won’t be amenable to another shift in business hours to weekends to save energy as it did in 2011.

3) Energy prices: Abandoning nuclear power will force utilities to import more fossil fuel. The total fuel costs of the nine big utilities will rise from ¥3.6 trillion to ¥6.3 trillion, which will translate into a jump in electricity prices of up to 30 percent or higher. LNG sellers in Qatar and Algeria are already starting to exploit Japan’s desperate situation by demanding much more than they charge their European peers.

4) Carbon dioxide increase: A major shift to fossil fuels will mean a major increase in carbon dioxide emissions. Japan would spectacularly fail in its public commitments to pare greenhouse gas emissions.

5) Overseas resistance: Despite the shock waves created by the Fukushima disaster, no foreign government has asked Japan to abandon nuclear energy. Last month, the World Economic Forum even warned Japan about making a rapid break with nuclear as it “would jeopardize Japan’s energy security.”

Yes, the list of arguments is long. But so is the list of hurdles, with the most important being the reactivation of the first reactor. This is where all of Japan’s troubles start and may never end. The government will need local support from the region hosting it.

Back in 2011, the government thought this region might be Kyushu, which traditionally had a positive stance on nuclear energy. But then came the scandal in July 2011 in which Kyushu Electric Power Co. workers were urged to pose as citizens lobbying to restart a local nuclear plant. The utility’s credibility took a big hit and hasn’t recovered since.

Likewise, the chances are low that Niigata will be this region. High hopes had been put on the massive Kashiwazaki-Kariwa power plant. It was the world’s largest when it opened in 1997, and the people of Niigata used to take pride in it. But a long series of blunders by Tokyo Electric Power Co. have left the public betrayed, and Niigata Gov. Hirohiko Izumida is unwilling to play ball.

The national government has more to be blamed for than the utilities. It has spectacularly failed in two areas: It hasn’t come up with a grand vision for energy policy and hasn’t won back the trust of the people.

As of today, there is no independent nuclear watchdog deemed free of political interference. The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency is trusted only by 12 percent of the public, according to poll NISA itself conducted in March.

Hence it comes as no surprise the restart of the Oi reactors is opposed not only by the people of Fukui, but also by the governors of neighboring Shiga and Kyoto prefectures.

Add to this the opposition of Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, who recently called for making the consent of every local government within 100 km of a nuclear facility a requirement for activation. According to a Yomiuri Shimbun survey, only six of the 34 governors and municipal heads are willing to consider restarts in their areas. And even then they demand clear safety standards.

The government needs to move quickly and decisively. It needs a neutral oversight body that can be trusted even by nuclear naysayers. Another group of faceless bureaucrats is no longer sufficient. It must include well-known individuals who can lend credibility to the new entity and its decisions.

Japan might take a page from the German government’s playbook. Right after the Fukushima accident, the German government established the Ethics Commission, which discussed and subsequently made recommendations on the future of the nation’s nuclear policy. It was made up of famous and highly respected individuals including businesspeople, academics and even a cardinal. While the German Ethics Commission paved the way for the country’s exit from nuclear power, a similar approach might help Japan actually achieve the opposite — a restart, however temporary, of the nuclear power business.

At this very moment, the chances that a nuclear reactor in Japan will be reactivated appear to be fifty-fifty. It will all depend on the ability of the government to come up with a clear energy policy, change its disastrous information and communication policies, and address the issue sincerely with the public’s interest in mind. Even last week’s decision by the Oi Municipal Assembly to back the restarting of Kansai Electric’s reactors is no guarantee this will happen.

Just imagine another trust-obliterating scandal or nuclear accident taking place after the next quake. The public reaction will be clear and turn May 5 into the day Japan followed Italy by shutting down its last nuclear reactor — forever.

Jochen Legewie is president of German communications consultancy CNC Japan K.K. (See his blog at www.cncblogs.jp)