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Japan goes back to the future to affirm energy ‘foundation’

by Philip White

Special To The Japan Times

On Dec. 6 the Japanese government released a new draft Basic Energy Plan for public comment. This will replace the 2010 BEP, which is still legally current despite the fact that its foundations were blown away by the March 11, 2011, nuclear accident at the Fukushima No. 1 plant.

In September 2012, the then Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) government issued an “Innovative Strategy for Energy and the Environment,” which set the unprecedented goal of phasing out nuclear power by 2039. But this did not have the same legal status as the BEP, and when the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won back power in the December 2012 election, it declared that it would review the DPJ’s strategy from scratch, stating that it did not support a nuclear phase-out.

The recently released draft BEP goes as close as possible to preserving the pre-Fukushima nuclear status quo, but with all nuclear power plants currently closed down and public opinion still strongly in favor of a nuclear phase out, it was unable to set ambitious targets for nuclear energy.

The 2010 BEP aimed for 50 percent of electricity generation from nuclear power by 2030, with at least 14 new nuclear power plants being constructed in that time, but the recently released draft eschews targets altogether, settling instead for qualitative statements affirming the continuing role of nuclear power. It states that nuclear energy is an “important baseload power source that serves as a foundation” for the stability of Japan’s energy supply.

The word “foundation” was added for emphasis after the draft was initially released, even though one of the drafting committee members pointed out that over-emphasis reduces credibility.

An aspect of the DPJ’s “Innovative Strategy” that attracted criticism from all sides was the nuclear fuel-cycle policy. The strategy purported to maintain the existing policy, which meant reprocessing all spent nuclear fuel to separate plutonium, at the same time as phasing out the proposed means of consuming that plutonium, namely using it as fuel in nuclear reactors (be they standard light-water reactors or fast-breeder reactors). Besides domestic criticism of this contradiction, it was also criticized by officials in the U.S. government who were concerned about the proliferation implications of more plutonium stockpiles.

Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Toshimitsu Motegi jumped on this contradiction during his Dec. 6 press conference announcing the draft BEP. He implied that the new draft resolved this problem because it states that nuclear power plants will continue to operate, but in fact the draft gives no indication of what steps will be taken to ensure that Japan’s plutonium stockpile does not grow.

Japan now has 44 tons of separated plutonium (enough to make over 5,000 nuclear weapons), 34.9 tons stored in Europe and 9.3 tons stored in Japan.

Given the push to restart the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant, the very limited capacity to consume plutonium even if permission is given to restart some of Japan’s idled nuclear reactors, and the fact that Japan does not yet have a fuel fabrication plant designed to manufacture plutonium-based fuel for light-water reactors, it is inevitable that Japan’s in-country plutonium stockpile will grow if reprocessing resumes.

Even more back to the future than the draft BEP contents was how the BEP was produced. After the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant accident, the DPJ government commenced a review of energy and environment policy. After deliberations in a committee that included more or less equal numbers of nuclear critics, proponents and neutral people, in June 2012 three scenarios were announced — based on 0 percent, 15 percent and 20 to 25 percent of electricity generation from nuclear energy. In July-August, these scenarios were put to a broad national debate, the outcome of which was that a clear majority of the public supported a nuclear phase-out. The national debate played a crucial role in pushing the DPJ government to support a nuclear phase out in its “Innovative Strategy.”

Besides repudiating the DPJ’s goal of phasing out nuclear energy, the LDP government also revamped the policy- drafting committee, drastically reducing the number of nuclear critics. The chairman, Akio Mimura, who had played a problematic role in the DPJ review, was retained. He became even more outspoken in his support of nuclear energy and did not hesitate to make disparaging remarks about the contributions of the two remaining nuclear critics on the committee.

But the clearest evidence of the reversion to the old ways was the manner in which public comments on the draft BEP were called. The draft was produced by the secretariat (provided by the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy) without consultation with committee members.

It was said to be based on the committee’s discussions, but there was no indication of how members’ views were reflected. When it was presented to the committee on Dec. 6, many of the members said they had not even had time to read it, yet it was released for public comment on the same day.

At the following meeting, held Dec. 13, a draft slightly amended on the basis of comments at the previous meeting was tabled, but the deadline for public comments was only extended two days to Jan. 6. Chairman Mimura spoke as if the committee would probably not reconvene before a Cabinet decision was made on the BEP sometime in January.

Presumably some formal response to the public comments will be produced, but it seems that the government does not regard it as necessary for the committee to be given a chance to comment on the public comments. Apparently there are no plans for public hearings to be held.

From a process perspective, this represents a step back about 20 years. The first official example of public participation in Japan’s nuclear energy policymaking process occurred in 1994. Before that, there was no public participation and policymaking committees were held in secret. A major step toward greater public participation and disclosure of information occurred after the December 1995 sodium leak and fire at the Monju fast breeder reactor. Although public participation was not conducted in good faith, at least lip service was paid. It seems that the current government has decided that it doesn’t even need to pay lip service.

No doubt this is partly due to the LDP government’s determination to totally repudiate the DPJ government’s record. A precedent was established with the DPJ’s 2012 national debate on energy policy. For the first time the public was allowed to exert influence on energy policy. But for the nuclear industry this was a precedent they did not want repeated ever again.

Some LDP politicians support a phase- out of nuclear energy, and popular former LDP Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has come out strongly in favor of a nuclear phase out, but the current LDP hierarchy has been working overtime to protect the nuclear industry.

What with rescuing Tokyo Electric Power Co., whose management led to the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe acting as chief salesman for nuclear exports, and now this gung-ho approach to energy policymaking, it is back to the future turbocharged.

Philip White is a Ph.D. student at Adelaide University’s Center for Asian Studies. He was working as international liaison officer for the Tokyo-based Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center at the time of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant accident.