On Jan. 1, Hiroaki Nakanishi, chairman of the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren), held press interviews on the outlook of the business community and, at one point, the discussion turned to nuclear energy.
Nakanishi is also the chairman of Hitachi Ltd., a major supplier of nuclear technology, and he said that the commercial possibilities for nuclear energy in Japan, for both “clients,” meaning power companies, and “vendors,” meaning plant manufacturers such as Hitachi, were increasingly limited. If clients can’t make a profit, then neither can vendors, and that will continue to be the case as long as the public is opposed to nuclear energy. The industry can’t force nuclear power on the citizens of a democracy.
Major media were presumably represented at the interviews, but only one outlet, All-Nippon News Network (ANN), reported Nakanishi’s nuclear-related comments. Jan. 1 was a newspaper holiday, which means that no newspapers were published on Jan. 2, but there was still no other mention of his remarks on Jan. 3. On Jan. 5, journalist Hajime Takano commented on this lack of interest to former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama on the latter’s web channel for his East Asian Community Institute. The head of Hitachi, a key company in nuclear technology, had said that the business of nuclear energy is impossible without public support. Since nuclear energy is national policy, the ramifications are huge, Takano said, and yet no other major media had covered the remarks or ANN’s report. Were they afraid of upsetting the government?
As Takano pointed out, the Tokyo Shimbun, which as a regional newspaper doesn’t qualify as “major media” and tends to question the government’s nuclear policy, did mention Nakanishi’s remarks on its front page on Jan. 5, suggesting that the Hitachi chairman was no longer aligned with the administration on nuclear energy. Almost eight years after the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, no nuclear plants in eastern Japan have resumed operation and, without an economic rationale for nuclear power, the policy is pointless.
But the Tokyo Shimbun also reported that Nakanishi said Japan does not have the right environment for renewable energy. This qualification seemed to imply that nuclear power was still preferable, but only if the public could be persuaded to accept it. So while part of Nakanishi’s remarks might give the impression that Japan’s nuclear power industry is throwing in the towel, they need to be contextualized within the larger picture of Hitachi’s business.
A report in the Dec. 19 issue of the tabloid Nikkan Gendai indicated that Hitachi had hit a wall with regard to its project to build a nuclear reactor on the coast of Wales. Nakanishi had given a news conference saying that Hitachi was having difficulty finding additional investment for the project and, therefore, the company had reached its limit, suggesting they might abandon it. The original cost estimate of ¥1.5 trillion has since doubled.
The problem with the Wales project is that Hitachi only wanted to build the plant, but it cannot find anyone to run the reactor afterward, so Hitachi would have to assume operations itself to get approval for construction. In that regard it needs financial help from the British government, which couldn’t be guaranteed in the wake of the Brexit fiasco. Similar problems were faced by two other Japanese companies: Toshiba Corp. in the United States and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. in Turkey, both of which ended up pulling out of respective foreign nuclear construction projects.
Ever since Japanese nuclear plant expansion ground to a halt after the Fukushima disaster, the government has promoted overseas nuclear development as a growth strategy, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as the lead international salesman. However, proposed projects in Vietnam, Taiwan and other places have stalled one after another. The collapse of the British project, which was formally announced Thursday, may be the final nail in the coffin.
In that light, Nakanishi’s new year remarks sound fatalistic, but pundits hear something different. Nikkan Gendai interviewed former trade ministry official Shigeaki Koga, who pointed out that Japan’s nuclear energy players are dependent on the government. Without support, there was no way private power companies or vendors could have made money on nuclear energy. They essentially stuck with it because it was national policy. Nakanishi’s remarks, Koga said, were really veiled threats directed at the government: If you don’t help us financially and legally, then we will have no choice but to get out of the nuclear business. If you want us to continue, he added, it’s your job to convince the public that nuclear energy is worth it.
Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings’ recent foray into wind power, which the Yomiuri Shimbun, a staunch backer of official policy, covered in detail on Jan. 1, is really, according to Koga, just a means of getting the government’s attention. Understanding that renewable energy such as wind power is probably the future, Tepco needs to enter the field, but that doesn’t mean it’s getting out of the nuclear business. In response to these kinds of comments, Nakanishi clarified on Jan. 15 that Keidanren still supports nuclear energy.
For what it’s worth, pro-nuclear advocates have always said the main obstacle to nuclear power is public opinion, which they believe is ill-informed. Nuclear energy is not as dangerous as people think it is, they say, and is much less environmentally harmful than fossil fuels, which currently supply the bulk of Japan’s electricity needs. The government, they insist, needs to sway the public.
However, in the Jan. 13 issue of the Tokyo Shimbun, Chuo University professor Motoko Mekata says the people are right to reject the “mythology” of nuclear power as being “safe, clean and inexpensive,” and was disappointed with Nakanishi’s remarks.
As soon as Hitachi realized that nuclear exports were economically unfeasible, they said they can’t do it without public support, wrote Mekata. The nuclear industry has not changed its position, she said, it’s just shifted the blame for its miscalculations on someone else.