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A cautious return to nuclear power

Though public is wary, new LDP-led government backs resumption of reactors, plant construction

by Miya Tanaka

Kyodo

Japan appears to be heading toward a gradual revival of nuclear power generation under a new government supportive of retaining it, but the outlook for the industry in 2013 is unclear, with antinuclear sentiment still lingering among the public amid the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 atomic plant.

The new government led by the Liberal Democratic Party has already signaled that it has no intention of following in the footsteps of the Democratic Party of Japan government, which was overthrown after the Dec. 16 election, when it comes to energy policy. The DPJ government aimed at phasing out nuclear power by the 2030s.

“We need to reconsider the previous government’s policy of seeking zero operations of nuclear plants,” Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Toshimitsu Motegi told a press conference shortly after assuming the ministerial post.

He also said that completely giving up Japan’s spent-fuel recycling policy, which would lose its role if nuclear power generation ends, is “currently not an option,” and that the government backs the resumption of reactors as long as they are deemed safe by the Nuclear Regulation Authority, the new atomic watchdog.

The remarks are likely to encourage utilities, which have been desperate to restart idled reactors to boost their business. The minister’s words also leave open the possibility of allowing utilities to install new reactors that have been planned but are not yet under construction.

But the nuclear industry is not necessarily optimistic about its prospects due to the huge impact the Fukushima crisis has had on the public.

“The LDP won (the Dec. 16 general election), so will nuclear power be pursued? I don’t think things are as simple as that,” Takuya Hattori, president of the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum, told reporters, adding that the industry would lose more public trust if it returns to business as usual.

“The point is whether the nuclear industry can show how deeply it regrets the Fukushima accident and how far it will change itself,” said Hattori, a former executive vice president of Tokyo Electric Power Co.

2012 was tumultuous for Japan’s nuclear plant operators. From May, the country experienced a period without nuclear power for the first time in decades, as reactors that had been operating before the nuclear crisis started went offline for mandatory routine maintenance and were unable to be restarted without first undergoing “stress tests.”

Two reactors in western Japan were reactivated in July after clearing provisional safety standards created by the government amid massive antinuclear rallies, which drew some 200,000 people near the prime minister’s office in Tokyo at one point, according to the organizers.

In addition to such a harsh climate of public opinion about atomic power, utilities may also face more headwinds now that the NRA is gearing up to assess the safety of reactors in the quake-prone country.

Recently, the NRA has suggested it will be tough with utilities, warning that geological faults under two plants are likely to be active, assessments that will significantly affect the prospects for restarting the two plants’ reactors.

Motegi said the government will “respect” the safety assessments made by the independent NRA and added that reactors will not be allowed to restart unless they clear the new safety standards, which the NRA plans to craft by July to prevent a recurrence of the Fukushima crisis.

Tadahiro Katsuta, an associate professor at Meiji University who is a member of a panel tasked by the NRA with devising the standards, said that “high bars” are expected to be set for utilities.

But he also said he feels the plant operators are determined to meet the requirements at any cost and that there is no guarantee that the NRA can maintain its current tough stance against the companies.

“You don’t know in what form pressure could be (exerted) on the NRA commissioners. Public opinion (skeptical about nuclear power) could also be a factor that is affecting them now, so if people start to become mum on the issue, the NRA’s stance could change,” Katsuta said.

Some political experts said the new government is expected to carefully consider how to handle the nuclear issue, especially before the House of Councilors election, expected in July, because explicitly taking a pronuclear stance could trigger a public backlash.

“The LDP’s landslide victory in the Lower House election may have made some ruling party lawmakers think there is less risk of pushing for the resumption of reactors. But they could still take a cautious approach until they win the Upper House election, opting to do what they really want to after that,” said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University.