Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s plan to shift Japan toward renewable energy in light of the Fukushima disaster faces resistance from politicians who have been compromised by their close ties to utilities, an opposition lawmaker said.
Kan has pledged to reduce the nation’s reliance on nuclear power after the March 11 megaquake and tsunami wrecked Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear station, causing radiation to leak into the air, sea and soil and three reactor meltdowns.
The push for renewable energy — including a bill in the Diet to subsidize electricity from wind, solar and geothermal sources — will meet resistance because politicians don’t want to anger the utilities, Taro Kono, a lawmaker for the Liberal Democratic Party who supports phasing out nuclear power, told reporters Tuesday.
“We know the LDP has received a huge amount of money from the power companies, and the Democratic Party of Japan gets support from the power companies’ labor unions,” said Kono, who plans to run for his party’s presidency next year. “How we break that vicious circle is a test we have to pass.”
Kan used a ceremony to mark 66 years since the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima on Saturday to outline his plan to cut usage of nuclear power, which provided about 30 percent of the country’s electricity before the crisis.
His effort to win backing for renewable energy has been hampered by calls for him to step down over the handling of the response to the March 11 catastrophe, which left more than 20,000 people dead or missing and destroyed more than 100,000 structures.
Kan has indicated he will step down, although with conditions. One of them is passing a bill to provide feed-in tariffs, or subsidies, for renewable energy producers.
While Kan’s popularity has waned, public support for abandoning nuclear power is growing. A total of 68 percent of respondents to an Asahi newspaper poll published Monday said they want Kan’s successor to continue his goal of phasing out atomic energy.
Still, public opinion may not be enough to sway politicians, said Kono, one of the few antinuclear politicians in a conservative party that created the country’s atomic industry during almost an uninterrupted half-century of rule to 2009.
“Some LDP members probably think that people will forget in five years, and we’ll be able to build a nuclear power plant again,” he said. “I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
The Diet vote on feed-in tariffs, expected by Aug. 26, will provide the first indication of post-Fukushima energy policy.
While the legislation contains no indication of the price for electricity from renewable sources, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has indicated a target of up to ¥20 per kilowatt hour for as long as 20 years, according to a report last month by Bloomberg New Energy Finance. That compares with the grid electricity price of ¥13.77 per kwh for commercial users, according to data the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy.
A feed-in tariff proposed in 2000 was blocked by the LDP, Tepco and METI, the ministry in charge of promoting nuclear power, Kono said Wednesday. A similar policy covering home installations of solar panels was introduced by the current government in 2009.
“We should have done it in 2000 just like Germany, where it changed their renewable energy industry so much,” Kono said. “Our renewable energy has been completely flat at 1 percent of total supply.”
Critics of the renewable energy drive include Keidanren, Japan’s largest business lobby that includes power utilities. Hiroshi Mikitani, president of Japan’s biggest online retailer, Rakuten Inc., quit the group in June in protest over its support for the energy status quo.
Softbank Corp. Chief Executive Officer Masayoshi Son plans to invest about ¥80 billion to build 10 solar farms if he gets access to transmission networks and agreement from the 10 regional utilities to buy his electricity, a move that would end the companies’ monopoly over power distribution.
“I’m not optimistic, but it’s time for the LDP to leave the power companies and join the public in promoting an alternative to the current energy policy,” Kono said.
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