The hulking system that once guided Japan’s pronuclear power stance worked just fine when everybody moved in lock step, but its size and complexity have proved ill-suited for resolving conflict at a time of nuclear crisis.
Nearly a year after the triple meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant, decision-makers still can’t agree on how to safeguard reactors against future accidents, or even whether to operate them at all.
Some experts say this indecision reflects the Japanese tendency to search for — and sometimes depend on — consensus, even when there is no prospect of one emerging.
The system for making nuclear energy-related decisions requires the agreement of thousands of officials. Most bureaucrats and politicians in Tokyo want to recommit to atomic power, but they have been thwarted by a powerful minority of reformists and prefectural governors.
The stalemate has already resulted in heavy consequences, especially as reactors have remained idle and caused record financial losses at power companies and electricity shortages stunting economic growth in manufacturing hubs.
Power shortages are likely to mount as more reactors are shut down for regular maintenance and inspections.
At present, only three of the nation’s 54 commercial reactors are still in operation and even those units are scheduled to be idled by the end of April for tests. Such a scenario would leave Japan, previously the world’s third-largest consumer of nuclear energy, nuclear-free — unless the government wins approval from host communities to restart idled reactors.
For decades, the country’s energy policy and its heavy reliance on nuclear power received little public scrutiny and encountered ineffective opposition. An elaborate network gradually developed, with the government passing subsidies to host communities and utilities, and forming de facto partnerships with nuclear manufacturing firms such as Toshiba Corp., Hitachi Ltd. and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd.
But the March meltdowns in Fukushima were just enough to stall such cooperation. Two-thirds of the public now oppose atomic power, and officials in areas that host nuclear plants and hold veto power over restarting reactors are rethinking their stance.
A few vocal skeptics have even emerged in the government, and because of the crisis at least a dozen commissions and task forces have been created to examine energy-related issues.
The broad attempt to seek consensus might sound like a welcome change, but members on some of these panels say it has created a system that is impeding reform.
“Oh, there are so many panels,” said Tatsuo Hatta, an economist who sits on three of them. “I’m sorry it’s so complicated.”
The most immediate question is whether to restart the reactors that once supplied almost a third of the nation’s power. The debate comes down to how, or whether, their safety can be guaranteed.
As utility executives lobby for a quick restart, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency says the government’s stress tests — in which computers simulate a reactor’s response to earthquakes and tsunami — are sufficient to assess the risks. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has said the stress tests are a key step in confirming the safety of the power stations.
But some governors, as well as certain members of key nuclear panels in Tokyo, fear the government is cutting corners and underscore its traditional coziness with the nuclear industry. They are calling for a revised set of safety standards later this summer, after the government finalizes a report about the causes of the Fukushima disaster.
With their reactors idled, power companies — which effectively operate as regional monopolies — have seen their market values drop by as much as 50 percent. Some have been forced to fire up old thermal plants, raising the possibility of higher electricity bills.
The utilities have also been unable to map out any long-term strategies, uncertain whether to count on their reactors or push for alternatives such as renewable energy sources or liquefied natural gas.
By the end of the summer, a 25-member panel composed of economists, professors and other outside experts plans to draft Japan’s new basic energy plan.
But that plan must then be approved by the divided Diet, which has struggled to cooperate even on issues such as disaster reconstruction work in devastated Tohoku.
Meanwhile, power company employees are racing to reassure the public that nuclear plants are safe and necessary. In recent weeks, officials from Kansai Electric Power Co., Japan’s largest nuclear operator, have gone door to door in towns that host its atomic plants, conducting polls and answering questions.
The Kansai region is the nation’s second-largest industrial area and in normal times its most nuclear-reliant. Until last year, a cluster of 11 reactors north of the cities of Osaka and Kyoto supplied almost 50 percent of the region’s power. Now, only one of those reactors is running.
In Kansai, it’s possible to get a glimpse of the obstacles Kepco must overcome.
The governor of Fukui, which hosts the utility’s reactors, says stress tests alone are not enough to prove their safety. The popular antinuclear mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, wants to break up Kansai Electric’s regional monopoly and as his city holds the largest stake in the utility has been trying to rally support from other shareholders to pressure the utility out of the nuclear power business.
Antinuclear groups in Osaka have gathered tens of thousands of signatures, raising the possibility of a referendum on atomic power. Last month, a nuclear safety agency meeting to discuss a restart of two reactors in Kansai — reactors 3 and 4 at the Oi plant in Fukui Prefecture — was delayed for more than 3½ hours because of protesters. Once the meeting got under way, the agency approved the stress tests conducted on the two reactors, a key step in the government’s process for authorizing a restart.
Residents living close to nuclear plants, meanwhile, are feeling a growing sense of doom. A nuclear plant that hugs the craggy shoreline in Mihama, Fukui Prefecture, was shut down for inspection in December, meaning the facility is producing no power for the first time in four decades. Within several months, the town will feel the economic pinch as fewer and fewer workers draw salaries from the plant, Mayor Jitaro Yamaguchi said.
The mayor faces a delicate balance. For economic reasons, his town needs the plant. But he also wants assurances that its three reactors are safe, while some of his residents say the stress tests alone won’t suffice to allay their concerns.
So last month, Yamaguchi took a four-hour train ride to Tokyo for a meeting with nuclear officials in the Cabinet. His message: Create some new safety measures, and please hurry.
“They need to expedite the process,” Yamaguchi said. “They’ve been really slow. Really, really slow.”