LDP star Obuchi to lead nuclear debate



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.”

  • My hope is that Obuchi can put a credible face to a concerted education program that puts the risks of nuclear into proper context. My children are now exposed to many more carcinogens from the new coal plants TEPCO now has to build than they would be if we moved into the Fukushima exclusion zone! This video does a good job of explaining just how over-blown the perceived risk is: http://goo.gl/nNQYVp

    Having talked a lot about this debate I wrote up a blog about how I think it needs to be framed in order to restore trust between government and citizens: http://goo.gl/Vps7ah

    Finally, I am not impressed with the Japan Times for giving a voice to Greenpeace, an organisation that has lost all credibility in the energy debate by clinging zealously onto an anti-nuclear energy stance in the face of all reason and despite so many grounded environmentalists supporting next generation nuclear technology. The blood of the recent victims of Hiroshima’s landslides, and all the other extreme climatic events is on their hands as far as I am concerned. No deaths or cancers will be caused by Fukushima Dai-ichi, as the UNSCEAR 2013 report clearly stated.

  • My hope is that Obuchi san can be a credible spokesperson for a concerted education program that puts the risks from nuclear power generation into their proper context. My children are now exposed to more carcinogens from the new coal-fired plants Japan has had to build than if we moved into the Fukushima dai-ichi exclusion zone!

    This video does a very good job at putting those risks into context: http://goo.gl/nNQYVp

    I have discussed a lot about the need for a reasoned debate around energy in Japan, and collected my thoughts about how this debate needs to be framed in this article: goo.gl/Vps7ah

    Finally, I am not impressed with the Japan Times for giving voice to Greenpeace, an organization that has lost all credibility in the energy debate by clinging zealously to an anti-nuclear position in the face of all reason, while all reasoned environmentalists have come out in support of next generation nuclear technology. The blood of the victims of Hiroshima’s recent landslides and all the other extreme weather events we are now suffering due to climate change is on their hands as far as I am concerned, and that coming from a former paid-up member.

    • Richard Solomon

      There are many, myself included, who view Greenpeace’s anti-nuclear positions as quite reasonable. Also, many ‘reasonable’ environmentalists/scientists have grave concerns about next generation nuclear power technology. There are still no credible plans for the long term, safe storage of the spent fuel that these plants produce.

      For a well reasoned, comprehensive perspective on nuclear power by experienced engineers and scientists, I refer people to the blog called All Things Nuclear. It is sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists based in the USA.

      If James feel is it would be safer to live in Fukushima than in other parts of Japan, I ask him when he is moving there?!? He should back up his words with his deeds.

      • Starviking

        Next-generation nuclear power technologies include the ability to use what we now consider ‘spent fuel’ in the reactor – virtually eliminating long-term waste, and providing power reserves for millennia.

        Reasonable blogs with a positive view of nuclear power are: Brave New Climate, Atomic Insights, and Hiroshima Syndrome. These are written by experienced scientists and engineers too. The scientific literature is a good place for information too. Publications like ‘The Journal of Radiological Protection’ are a good place to start, and often have free access to the most important articles. They are likely to be less biassed than blogs.

        Finally, James’ point on the exclusion zone’s safety might be stretching it a bit (…or maybe not – the science is contested). However, it can hardly be denied that we blithely live in areas with massive air pollution from cars, trucks, power plants and factories, but go hyperbolic at any mention of radioactivity.
        And on that point, and your response – “Why don’t you move there?” style responses really don’t advance things one bit, nor make a point, and have a whiff of the school-yard debate about them.

      • Mr Solomon (Richard Solomon), I do not doubt your morals, and I have read many a great article by you on this site, but I do ask you to show me reasoned evidence for your “grave concerns”. Please state clearly which books and scientific papers by credible authors you have read that justify your concerns. If, like some other journalists, you have not got the time, then I recommend starting with the 2013 UNSCEAR report on Fukushima that states:

        “The doses to the general public, both those incurred during the first year and estimated for their lifetimes, are generally low or very low. No discernible increased incidence of radiation-related health effects are expected among exposed members of the public or their descendants. The most important health effect is on mental and social well-being, ”

        The tragic incidents of unnecessary thyroid operations among children resulting from the irrational fear of their parents reported in the Japan Times recently is yet another tragic consequence of the fear, not the radiation itself.

        I have been to Fukushima on numerous occasions since the accident, and spoken to residents who have defied the exclusion ban, and they, like those who remained in Chernobyl’s exclusion zone and show no increase in cancer rates over the last 28 years, are in good health, but it is for sure a sombre place because of the stigma attached to radiation. The psychological effects of stigma and fear are undeniable and costly, particularly to children many of whom are showing signs of PTSD because of it, so no, I would not move my children there while this stigma pervades.

        Nuclear waste has been sitting around for decades and has not harmed anyone. It is a problem because of the excessive fear that surrounds it, not because of the biophysical risks it poses. As @starviking:disqus Starviking has pointed out, the next generation of technologies (which by the way have been around since the 80’s, but blocked from coming online by anti-nuclear pressures) will consume this waste. Many other countries are now finally building these reactors.

        I would ask you again to apply your values to coal, which is what Japan and German are forced to turn to to replace nuclear, where slag heaps regularly put arsenic and mercury into ground water, which emissions bring 50,000+ lives to a premature end in the US alone according to the American Lung Association, and which CO2 emissions cost thousands of lives through extreme weather already, that at the current +0.6C warming level. What do you think will happen when it reaches +2C or +6C? You and I, all of us, are responsible for this. We are borrowing this planet from our children after all.

        All power sources pose risk. Thousands of solar panel fitters and wind turbine engineers fall to their death every year. Fukushima was a serious industrial accident. TEPCO needs to have a better safety culture. But please put it into perspective. There is a raft load of well documented and well reported evidence to show that nuclear is by far the safest way to make electricity. Here is one example: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/mar/29/nuclear-power-safe-sir-david-king

        As for the Union of Concerned Scientists, it is anti-nuclear propaganda vehicle, and now anti-GMO too, that is scientific in name only, as is plainly clear if you take one look at one of their policy statements. Again, please show me something of theirs that justifies your concerns in scientific terms.

        I run an advertising agency. I do not have any skin in the nuclear industry, but I have read everything I can on both sides of the energy debate, and with a degree in physics from Oxford University the science is not baffling to me. It all shows that the concerns of anti-nuclear groups is way out of proportion to the reality and does not support your grave concerns. Thankfully the world and many of your fellow professional jounrnalists are coming to the same conclusions as me, so I humbly suggest you read up a bit more before your position become embarrassingly anachronistic.

  • Robert Matsuda

    Obuchi will be the touch-stone for the quality of women ministers in Japan. If she just follows the conventional policy of Liberal Democratic Party whose executives had been dominated by men members, people will be disappointed not only at Obuchi but also at other women politicians. From this point of view we should follow carefully the attitude toward the problems of nuclear power stations by Obuchi.