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Flip-flop on no-nuclear energy policy bodes ill for the future of Japan

by Jochen Legewie

Special To The Japan Times

On Sept. 14, the Japanese government presented to the public a new national energy strategy. This long-awaited plan included as its focal point the objective of eliminating nuclear power by the end of the 2030s. Less than a week later, however, Japan’s hopes for a nuclear-free world were dashed. In the face of strong opposition from the business community, municipalities and prefectures that host nuclear reactors and fuel reprocessing plants, and from the United States, Great Britain and France, the government decided to backtrack on its initial aspirations.

The Cabinet eventually approved the new energy plan on Sept. 19, but only by dropping the core reference to the 2040 deadline in a separate document attached to override the plan. In other words, Japan has gone back to the drawing board on whether to let nuclear power stay in its energy mix.

This zigzagging on policy has left many in and outside Japan scratching their heads. Both proponents and opponents of nuclear energy are equally frustrated because neither group’s concerns are being properly reflected by the government’s wavering course. The worst long-term damage, however, is probably being caused by the shaken belief that Japan has a predictable future in energy.

The announcement of the new energy strategy on Sept. 14 was filled with contradictions and ambiguities.

While aiming to close nuclear power plants by the end of the 2030s, the strategy allows work on plants already under construction to continue. It also calls for shutting down all reactors but continuing the reprocessing of spent fuel. Likewise, the goal of tripling electricity output from renewable energy sources by 2030 sounds hollow because the government does not offer any plans for generating the funding required to do so.

In addition to these factual contradictions, members of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s Cabinet have been making inconsistent remarks over the past weeks. While the government told Fukui Gov. Issei Nishikawa on Sept. 13 that it was planning to shut down the Monju fast-breeder reactor, science and technology minister Hirofumi Hirano told Nishikawa five days later that research and development activities at Monju would continue.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura even told a news conference on the morning of Sept. 17 about plans to decommission three nuclear reactors in Fukui Prefecture — only to retract the remarks later that afternoon.

On the evening of Sept. 23, Noda emphasized on TV that “abandoning nuclear power is a target that will not be undermined.” However, trade minister Yukio Edano offered a clarification, admitting, “Whether we can become nuclear-free by the 2030s is not something to be achieved only by policymakers. It also depends on the will of electricity users, technological innovation, and the international environment for energy in the next one or two decades.”

What remains for the time being represents a temporary victory by the formidable coalition of pronuclear interest groups. But as long as unpredictability and immature communications continue to shape energy policy and public perception at home and abroad, there will be no real winner.

Japan is in desperate need of a more serious debate on its energy future. The government should take the lead in creating a proper framework and timeline for this debate. It must bring to the table representatives from all ends of society, including the growing group of outspoken nuclear opponents.

In May, I argued here that Japan should borrow a page from the book of the German government. Right after the Fukushima disaster, the German government installed the so-called Ethics Commission, made up of famous and highly respected individuals from academia, the church and other parts of society, including a business representative, to discuss the nation’s future nuclear policy.

Japan needs to develop its own approach in a political environment that lacks a history of long-term public discussion of nuclear power as Germany had, and which faces significant differences with Germany in terms of geography, geopolitics and other conditions.

But it is clear that Japan cannot afford to keep zigzagging on energy policy much longer. If it continues, the fears of both sides in the nuclear debate might come true.

On the one hand, the continued unpredictability in policy will likely make energy-intensive businesses leave Japan. It will effectively dampen any further exports of nuclear technology while preventing the development of a strong new industry around renewable energies at the same time. It will even worsen relations with the U.S. and other Western allies that want Japan to stick with nuclear power but most of all request planning security.

On the other hand, if nuclear energy stays, it might lead to another major accident in Japan and thus — combined with above — result in the worst thinkable overall scenario.

Facts and perceptions need to be taken into the equation as well. There are many ways to do so. One would be to start an annual international summit to discuss the challenges and solutions to the energy questions of today and tomorrow. The obvious annual date would be March 11, with a venue either in Fukushima or Sendai.

The Japanese government owes it to its people, and also to the international community, to take the lead in addressing nuclear and other energy issues in a proactive and sustainable way. If it did so, it might even be perceived as leading in a responsible way.

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