Nuclear power remains an issue

Former health and welfare minister Yoichi Masuzoe, backed by the Liberal Democratic Party, New Komeito and the Tokyo chapter of the Japan Trade Union Confederation (Rengo), Japan’s largest labor organization, which counts the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s labor union among its members, won the Tokyo gubernatorial election on Sunday. Masuzoe focused on issues near and dear to the capitol’s residents, such as improving day-care and medical services, and preparing for the 2020 Olympic Games. While Masuzoe’s strategy of focusing on these meat and potato issues helped propel him to victory, the central government should not forget that nuclear power was also a big issue for voters.

Tokyo is the biggest user of electricity among Japan’s 47 prefectures, consuming about 10 percent of the nation’s electricity, and the two anti-nuclear power candidates — former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa and Kenji Utsunomiya, a former head of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations — together won about 40 percent of the total vote. Hosokawa and Utsunomiya opposed the Abe administration’s attempt to restart idled nuclear power plants and called for an immediate halt to nuclear power generation. Utsunomiya was backed by the Japan Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party. Hosokawa had the support of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who became an anti-nuclear advocate after the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

The Abe administration strived to downplay the nuclear power issue in the election, saying that energy policy must be dealt with by the central government. But the nuclear power issue affects every municipality and person in Japan, and raises a number of critical questions, such as: Should Tokyo continue to use power generated in countryside communities that are forced to bear the burden of hosting nuclear power plants; is it feasible to continue operating nuclear power plants in this quake-prone country; and what will be done with the high-level radioactive waste produced by nuclear power generation given that there is no proven technology to safely store it on a permanent basis?

The Abe administration’s efforts to quash the issue, despite the fact that the Fukushima nuclear crisis is still continuing and that some 140,000 people remain evacuated due to radioactive contamination of their communities, pointed to its determination to protect the vested interests of the nuclear power establishment.

The Abe administration’s move also showed that it felt a sense of crisis over the fact that a majority of Tokyoites oppose the restart of nuclear power plants and feared that a victory by either Utsunomiya or Hosokawa would place great pressure on the administration to change its pro-nuclear energy policy.

Utsunomiya won some 983,200 votes and Hosokawa some 956,000 votes for a total of roughly 1,938,000 votes against Masuzoe’s some 2,112,000 votes. The Abe administration should not regard the outcome of the Tokyo election as a green light for continuing its efforts to push for the restoration of nuclear power generation.

It should remember that even Masuzoe declared that a majority of people want to build a society not relying on nuclear power. After the election, he said that Tokyoites supported his call for gradually decreasing nuclear power generation and also expressed a hope to increase the weight of renewable energy in the electricity used by Tokyo to about 20 percent. Hosokawa, Utsunomiya and other supporters of a zero-nuclear policy should now focus on working out a detailed blueprint for building a society that no longer has to rely on nuclear power. A feasible and convincing blueprint will be indispensable to getting strong support from voters in future elections, both local or national.

As governor, Masuzoe should make strenuous efforts to promote energy conservation and the use of green energy sources, to make Tokyo resilient to major quakes and other natural disasters, to eradicate poverty and increase job opportunities, and to improve social welfare measures for all residents of Tokyo. In preparing for the 2020 Olympics, he should focus on reducing costs as much as possible by eliminating unnecessary expenditures.