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Bullet trains on a pro-nuclear curve

by Eric Johnston

In the debate over the future of nuclear power, which provided about a third of Japan’s electricity needs before the Fukushima disaster began in 2011, commentators for and against resuming its use have argued their case.

Experts on both sides often rely on arguments couched in status-quo assumptions or general platitudes. Serious discussions are backed by mind-numbing details on endless PowerPoint slides, requiring the patience of Buddha to endure, let alone comprehend.

But in the Kansai region, which relied on nuclear power for nearly half of its electricity before the three core meltdowns in March 2011, and in Fukui Prefecture, where 13 reactors supplied it, one reason for going back to nuclear requires neither a degree in economics nor nuclear engineering to understand. It’s just good old-fashioned pork-barrel politics.

This involves the future of trains. Specifically, the future route of the Hokuriku Shinkansen Line, which, if all works out, will link Nagano with Osaka, via Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, sometime in the middle of the century. The question for Kansai’s nuclear industry, however, is whether the central government will ensure Fukui gets a good chunk of the route and whether it will run down the eastern or western side of Lake Biwa, in Shiga Prefecture, to get to Osaka.

Three routes have been proposed, including one that would take bullet trains through southern Fukui, where the reactors are. Kansai’s leaders are well aware of how important the Hokuriku line will be to Fukui and strongly support extending it southwest to Osaka. But for economic reasons, they want it to go from Tsuruga to JR Maibara Station, on the eastern side of the lake. That means that it would bypass other towns in the southern part of Fukui that host reactors.

The third proposed route would take the line along Lake Biwa’s western shore, keeping it in Shiga.

Fukui’s pro-nuclear governor and the towns hosting its reactors want, of course, for the line to pass through their backyards so they can take advantage of the extra new passengers it would provide and lots of central government subsidies.

What if Tokyo picks a different route? Well, although not required by law, local approval is a de facto condition for restarting idled reactors. If the shinkansen don’t pull into their stations with cash subsidies, or if the people don’t indirectly benefit from the line somehow, Kansai may find Fukui’s mayors and governor suddenly less cooperative about approving restarts.

In the meantime, Toyama and Ishikawa prefectures are sending signals that the shinkansen project is related to nuclear power. At a meeting last week, the heads of the three prefectural assemblies agreed on extending it to Osaka and on restarting the reactors as soon as possible.

At the end of the day, the financial concerns of Fukui and the Hokuriku region are going to influence Kansai’s energy policy. The Hokuriku Shinkansen Line is a major bargaining chip for Fukui, Kansai and the central government in reaching a deal on just how those concerns can be addressed.