Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may have hoped that Yuko Obuchi, a 40-year-old mother of two with an impeccable political pedigree, will provide an acceptable face for his nuclear power push when he appointed her industry minister last week.
However, say observers, Obuchi will have her work cut out convincing a public still badly scarred by the Fukushima disaster that it is safe to switch the country’s 48 atomic reactors back on.
“I, too, am raising children,” Obuchi told reporters shortly after being made the country’s first female minister of economy, trade and industry. “If people say they are worried, I think it is only natural. If you are a mother, I think it is a kind of feeling that everyone has. The central government must offer a full explanation to these sentiments.”
Naming a young mother to the job was “a cunning move by Abe,” said Greenpeace Japan’s Kazue Suzuki, because the implicit message is that if someone who has children says nuclear power is safe, it sounds more credible.
However, Suzuki said people will not fall for that kind of sleight of hand, and that if Obuchi wants to represent them she should speak out against nuclear restarts.
“When (Obuchi) makes decisions, she should consider the reaction of ordinary women, the majority of whom do not want nuclear power stations reactivated,” Suzuki said.
Obuchi, daughter of late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, is a rising star in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and having first become a minister at the age of 34, holds the record as the youngest woman ever to make the grade. Now, as industry minister, her portfolio includes overseeing the power industry.
Ever since the March 2011 nuclear disaster erupted at the Fukushima No. 1 power station, where a tsunami knocked out cooling systems and sent reactors into meltdown, the country’s entire nuclear stable has gone offline, taking with it more than a quarter of the electricity supply. That has left Japan reliant on expensive fossil fuel imports, which are playing havoc with its balance of payments and pushing up prices for hard-pressed consumers.
At her inaugural news conference, Obuchi repeated the Abe administration’s line that her policy would be “to reduce our reliance on nuclear plants by actively introducing renewable energy and thorough energy saving.”
Then she added, “We will restart (nuclear power plants) by making safety our priority.”
The new minister highlighted the importance of earning “the understanding of hosting communities” who may be hostile to the prospect of firing up their nearby reactors again, despite beefed up safety rules and — by domestic regulatory standards — a ferocious new watchdog.
Obuchi is expected to visit the crippled Fukushima plant in the coming days, as well as the Sendai nuclear power station in southwestern Kyushu, where two reactors are the most likely to be restarted in the coming months.
The new regulator might confirm that the units are safe as soon as next week. The regulator has received nearly 17,000 public comments since it announced the Sendai plant’s re-evaluation in July.
Junichi Takase, a political science professor at Nagoya University of Foreign Affairs, dismissed speculation that Obuchi’s appointment was a cynical ploy. Rather, he says, she got the job because she is a capable individual with a bright future.
“Japanese people are no fools, and they know there will be no change in the safety of nuclear plants just because the minister changes,” he said.
“At this point (Abe has) no intention to use her politically to make the restart of nuclear reactors easier,” he said. “In the future, if she moves near a nuclear plant with her two children and says ‘it’s safe,’ then that would mean her status as a mother would be being politically used. But it’s not at this point.”
Political talents notwithstanding, Obuchi faces an uphill challenge, said Hikaru Hiranuma, a research fellow at The Tokyo Foundation, a think tank.
“She needs to address several difficult issues: safety at nuclear plants, preparations in case of an accident, such as evacuation schemes and drills, compensation for accident victims and how to dispose of spent nuclear fuel,” he said. “It will be difficult for her to justify the government’s plan to continue using nuclear as an important source of power, unless she comes up with answers to these challenges.”