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Nuke issue could restore power to the regions

by Philip Brasor

The Regional Governance Law allows local governments to submit ikensho, or “letters of opinion,” to the central government on matters that concern them. These opinions should represent the will of elected assemblies, and can include proposals for new bills or revisions of existing ones. About 7,000 ikensho are sent to the Diet every year, and according to an article in the Jan. 19 Asahi Shimbun, the central government rarely pays them any mind.

The administrative office of the upper house says that it has received 1,475 ikensho “related to nuclear energy issues” since the Fukushima nuclear plant accident in March 2011. Asahi went through these letters to determine how many demanded an end to support for nuclear energy as a national policy. Excluding matters pertaining to things like compensation for Fukushima victims and worries about radiation, the paper determined that 455 prefectural and municipal assemblies have asked the government to abandon nuclear power. That’s about 30 percent of all the local governments in Japan.

The Asahi mentions these numbers to point out the “lack of insight” inherent in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s view that the upcoming Tokyo governor’s election should not be about nuclear power, since energy policy is determined at the national level. Abe was referring to former PM Morihiro Hosokawa’s platform, which is built primarily on anti-nuclear sentiments with the help of another former prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, who was Abe’s mentor in the Liberal Democratic Party.

The Asahi finds the LDP’s stance patronizing. After all, the central government, in league with regional power firms, has promoted nuclear energy generation by placing plants in depopulated areas to provide electricity to large metropolises far away, thus setting up mutually dependent relationships between these localities that can only be mediated by centralized entities.

Since the Fukushima meltdown, however, many local governments have grown resentful of the LDP’s “leave it to us” policy. The government recently announced that this summer Tokyo Electric Power Co. will restart two reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power facility in Niigata, the world’s largest in terms of potential output. The prefecture’s governor, Hirohiko Izumida, told reporters that he doesn’t trust Tepco’s plan, calling it “very strange,” since shareholders and lending institutions don’t bear any risk. He asked who will take responsibility if an accident happens, implying that residents and utility users will pay for any problems, just as they are now doing with regard to the Fukushima accident. Theoretically, Tepco can ignore him, since it needs the OK of Kashiwazaki, not Niigata Prefecture, and the city relies on the plant for its economic wellbeing.

But that sort of financial dependence is not assured either. A year after the March 11 earthquake, NHK aired a documentary, still viewable via its On Demand service, about the financial relationship between remote nuclear power plants and their big-city customers. NHK found that on average, 35 percent of the budgets of municipalities that host nuclear plants comes from direct government subsidies and “donations” from regional power companies.

It is thought that these cities, towns and villages can’t survive without nuclear plants, but NHK showed that many can’t survive with them either. Government subsidies used to come with a condition stating that the money be used for “promotional” public works — museums and the like — so that residents would know where the money was coming from and what it was for. Maintenance of these white elephants is very expensive, so since the mid-1990s, subsidies have come with fewer strings attached, but because the tax base deteriorates as plants get older and subsidies are only given when plants are built, it hasn’t made that much difference.

Power-company donations have never come with strings. A group made up of various nuclear-power interests regularly gives money to Aomori Prefecture to “promote business.” All local governments in the prefecture, which hosts the Rokkasho nuclear fuel reprocessing plant, receive these funds.

The leader of the organization openly told NHK that Rokkasho is an important project and if anti-nuclear forces in the prefecture succeeded in having it shut down, even temporarily, “all our efforts will be for nothing.” As one insider said, the power companies established the fund to prevent an anti-nuclear candidate from winning the governorship, which is why they have to give money to all local governments, even those that have no nuclear facilities. Apparently, this scheme works, since there is no vocal opposition to nuclear power generation within local assemblies, though Rokkasho has had so many problems over the years there’s a possibility it will never be operational.

So regardless of what the LDP says, nuclear power is very much a local issue, and if regional governments ever decided they prefer to determine their own energy needs, the central government will lose a great deal of control over their affairs. Izumida is popular among his constituents, so even if gaining permission to reopen the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant is a courtesy that Tepco can ignore, doing so would intensify public resentment. According to Tokyo Shimbun, the LDP fears that if Hosokawa successfully taps this same sentiment among Tokyoites and wins the election, “the anti-nuclear movement could actually spread to local areas that host plants.” Before his ignominious exit in December, former Gov. Naoki Inose was already advocating energy independence for Tokyo.

Such a precedent would not only undermine the LDP’s energy policy; it would call into question the whole centralized structure of Japanese administration, a matter now coming to a head with regard to the proposed U.S. air base in Nago, Okinawa. If cities such as Tokyo and Osaka assume responsibility for their energy situations, then the local governments hosting the plants that now provide them with electricity will lose a good part of their income. Maybe they will go bankrupt or maybe they’ll figure out a way to survive, but either way they’ll do it on their own.

  • philippesama

    Good point, despite the enormous financial pressure, 30% clearly state their opposition to nuclear energy. In fact all reasonable Japanese no longer want nuclear. The few fanatics who still believe the lie of the industry and government will be forced to rally to the will of the majority. Unless Abe continues on the path of totalitarianism, but it will be difficult.

  • Sam Gilman

    Hosokawa is currently running a poor third in the polls, while the pro-nuclear Masuzoe is in the lead. According to polls, the issue of nuclear power also comes only third in the concerns of the voters.

    Let’s be honest. If Hosokawa won, the Japan Times and its ideologically cleansed stable of anti-nuclear columnists would be crowing about how “the people” have spoken.

    So what if Hosokawa loses? What if Masuzoe wins? Will the Japan Times editorial team, with all its apparent populist aspirations to speak for the nation, listen to the voice of the people and change its own views accordingly? Will Mr Brasor be championing re-centralisation of power?

    Or, satire aside, will the JT instead rediscover the difference between news and opinion, and realise just how much its allegedly factual “news” reporting on Japanese politics has become seriously corrupted by its anti-nuclear obsession?