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Kansai biz forum hails LDP, frets over nuke plants

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

At their annual gathering that wrapped up Friday, Kansai’s corporate leaders warmly welcomed the Liberal Democratic Party’s return to power, vowing to would do whatever they can to assist the new government in enacting a wide range of economic, financial, social and diplomatic initiatives.

But the impact of the continued shutdown of atomic power plants on the region’s economy and the possibility they will remain offline or even be scrapped due to the presence of probable active fault lines had some participants from Kansai Electric Power Co. and heavy industries worried.

The two-day Kansai Economic Seminar was attended by more than 500 representatives from Kansai area firms, academics and foreign diplomats. In addition to local and national economic issues, the event also featured an at times frank exchange of views between corporate leaders and college students on opportunities for younger workers.

While pledging to step up efforts to strengthen relations with the new administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, there was much concern expressed among the business leaders about a more pressing issue: The Nuclear Regulation Authority is currently checking the geology at and around nuclear plants, and some participants worried that the watchdog could rule that the plants are sitting directly above, or near enough to, active faults, which could force a permanent shutdown of their reactors.

Kepco’s reactors 3 and 4 at the Oi atomic complex in Fukui Prefecture are the only ones in the country that have been restarted since the Fukushima meltdowns that followed the March 11, 2011 disaster. But the NRA is debating their fate as it tries to determine the risk from faults located beneath the plant. Several attendees grumbled about the agency, saying it has misunderstood its role.

“The NRA’s mission is to identify safe nuclear power plants and quickly get them operational. (But) they’re hell-bent on finding active faults” instead, said Tsuyoshi Takeuchi, vice president of Kanden Fudosan, a Kepco-affiliated real estate company.

“Ever since the Fukushima disaster, people have become (fixated with safety) to the point of frustration. Making safety the priority is causing people to stop thinking,” he griped. “We need to advance discussions (on whether to restart the plants) by scientifically looking at the effect from fault lines and talking about whether (the NRA) can clear any problems.”

With the fate of the Oi plants unclear, Kepco has announced plans for a rate hike of nearly 20 percent from April on large-scale electricity users. Kepco President Makoto Yagi apologized to seminar participants for the decision.

“Since 3/11, we’ve been asking people to conserve electricity due to supply and demand concerns, and we’re forced by the dire economic situation to place the burden of a rate hike on everyone,” Yagi said.

The seminar also attempted to address longer-term socioeconomic issues. For years, the gathering has been criticized by participants and outsiders as an old boys’ club hostile to hearing from those who are not elderly, male and graduates of a few select universities.

While the number of women present was, as LDP General Council chief Seiko Noda noted as the keynote speaker, conspicuously small, the seminar featured a session with nearly two dozen university students. Discussions focused on the role of corporations in harnessing younger people to spur economic growth. The exchanges also covered general attitudes of younger workers.

“Today’s students were born after the bubble economy collapsed and are looking for values other than expensive wine and cars, or money,” said Hiroaki Fujii, a junior at Kyoto Prefectural University.

Sayuri Ura, a senior at Kyoto’s Doshisha University, said, “The future may be uncertain, but I think it will turn out OK and I have lots of friends who are enjoying their lives.”

These remarks were greeted with concern by the corporate leaders, however. Fumitoshi Sato, an executive at Horiba Ltd., warned that being satisfied with the way things are would lead to a loss of global competitiveness.

One student said his job-hunting experience indicated that, despite rhetoric from personnel departments and even senior leaders at the seminar about the need for innovative thinkers and leadership, what firms really want are recruits who are smart but not too smart, and who simply go with the flow.

Takeo Obayashi, chairman of Obayashi Corp., admitted firms must change. “Firms are afraid of risk and won’t hire unique people. We have to employ such candidates and guide them.”