Radiation spreading from the Fukushima No. 1 plant threatens to derail Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to revive nuclear power and deliver the lower energy prices needed to power his economic reforms.
As Abe prepares for a trip Saturday to the Middle East, where he will promote sales of nuclear technology, the atomic industry at home is reeling. The Nuclear Regulator Authority said this week that a new radioactive water leak was the most serious incident at the Fukushima No. 1 complex since the March 2011 meltdowns that devastated the site.
The latest setback may stoke public anger over the Fukushima disaster, undermining Abe’s efforts to restart some of Japan’s 48 idled reactors and boost nuclear exports — key elements of his plan to drive an economic revival. Abe, who must decide whether to proceed with a sales tax hike, is counting on restarting reactors to help reduce energy imports and fuel growth in consumer confidence and corporate earnings.
“Abe’s getting to the hard stuff of structural reform and deciding whether to increase taxes,” said Jeff Kingston, professor of Japanese politics at Temple University’s Tokyo campus. “Revving up the reactors is crucial to ‘Abenomics.’ “
To date, Abe’s popularity has been buoyed by the initial success of his Abenomics plan, which included fiscal and monetary stimulus. Still, the weaker yen has inflated the cost of importing fuel, making a nuclear restart critical to preventing soaring energy costs and the possible sales tax increase from choking the recovery.
Abe inherited a pledge to raise the sales tax to 8 percent from 5 percent in April to help tame the world’s biggest debt, at almost 240 percent of gross domestic product. The hike could cause the economy to contract an annualized 4.3 percent in the second quarter of next year from growth of 4.6 percent in the previous three months, according to the median forecast of 34 economists surveyed.
Prior to the Fukushima catastrophe, nuclear power supplied more than 25 percent of Japan’s electricity. Now, all but two of the country’s 50 reactors are idled for safety checks following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that crippled three of the Fukushima No. 1 plant’s reactors, and those two running units will be taken offline next month for inspections.
Many of the 160,000 residents evacuated from around the Fukushima plant have yet to or cannot return home, and some agriculture and fishing bans remain in effect around the site.
An investigation by Tokyo Electric Power Co. after this week’s announcement that 300 tons of highly radioactive water had escaped into the Pacific, showed no further leaks, Tepco spokesman Hiroki Kawamata claimed Thursday.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Wednesday that the government “would do its utmost” to stop the Fukushima leak as soon as possible.
The NRA labeled the new spill “serious” and questioned the ability of Tepco to deal with the crisis. The leak was ranked as category 3 on a scale set up by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The initial 2011 meltdowns at Fukushima were in the highest severity category of 7 — the same as Chernobyl — on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale.
Even before news of the new leak, a majority of the public was against restarting atomic reactors, according to a Kyodo News poll taken July 13-14, with 51 percent opposed and 40 percent in favor of reviving nuclear plants.
The latest revelation could further sway sentiment against nuclear power, according to Koichi Nakano, professor of politics at Sophia University in Tokyo.
“The Abe government may be tempted to shrug its shoulders and say that things are under control now, and keep pushing to restart (reactors),” Nakano said. “That could be a very misguided approach in terms of a popular backlash and international criticism if the leakage is shown to be even more serious.”
Abe’s approval rating stood at 54.2 percent in a Jiji News survey last week. The rate has held above 50 percent since he took power in December.
The prime minister’s bid to revive the economy comes amid signs of a recovery in Asia and Europe. China reported foreign direct investment rose 24.1 percent in July, a sixth monthly gain. Final German numbers for second-quarter GDP later Friday may confirm 0.7 percent growth, more than economists initial forecasts, while Britain will also release final GDP data after a preliminary report showed a 0.6 percent expansion, twice the pace of the first three months.
Apart from backing a return to nuclear power, Abe has made exporting nuclear technology a major component of his economic plan and has served as pitch man for companies such as Toshiba Corp. and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. On his Saturday to Aug. 29 trip to four Middle East nations, Abe will offer “cooperation in the nuclear safety field” in Kuwait and Qatar, according to a briefing paper on the tour.
Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Toshimitsu Motegi agreed to promote nuclear cooperation with Saudi Arabia on a visit in February, while Japan previously signed a memorandum of nuclear development with Kuwait. Abe and French President Francois Hollande agreed to deepen cooperation on reactor exports in June.
“Phasing out nuclear power would devastate Japan’s plans to become a major nuclear exporter. It would also put a damper on the growth strategy,” said Temple University’s Kingston.
Abe said this month that Tepco alone isn’t up to the task of containing the nuclear disaster.
“It’s a grave matter that the government has left Tepco to deal with the situation,” Taro Kono, a deputy secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said Thursday. “Decommissioning the nuclear plants, compensation issues and the contaminated water are all issues beyond Tepco’s management capacity.”