Passing the buck on nuclear power

The government’s irresponsible attitude toward nuclear power generation is becoming clear. It seems that the government does not want to pursue concrete steps to reduce and eventually end the nation’s reliance on nuclear power despite its new long-term energy policy under which it is supposed to utilize all the available policy resources to achieve “zero operation” of nuclear power plants in the 2030s. This attitude is exemplified by its readiness to accept the resumption of the suspended construction of new nuclear power plants. Because a 40-year operation limit will be imposed on nuclear power plants, the resumption of the construction of those plants means that they will remain online at least into the 2050s.

On the other hand, it seems that the government does not want to be involved in any political decisions concerning the restart of existing nuclear power plants, which in the future will have to pass the new post-Fukushima safety standards that are being drawn up by the newly established Nuclear Regulatory Authority. The NRA is expected to finish writing the new safety standards, which will subject even existing nuclear power plants to the latest technological progress, by July 2013.

At present only two of Japan’s 50 nuclear power reactors are online. Clearly the government does not want to make decisions that will anger the majority of citizens who want Japan to phase out nuclear power. There is the possibility that even while the government refrains from making any concrete decisions in either direction, the power industry will restart nuclear power plants one after another. This will be a typical example of faits accomplis being achieved in the absence of responsible actions by the government.

NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka has made it clear that the job of the NRA is only to determine whether individual nuclear power plants meet the safety standards and that a decision on whether to approve the restart of particular nuclear power plants on the basis of such factors as supply and demand of electricity and economic considerations should be made by power companies owning nuclear power plants or by a government ministry or agency in charge of energy policy. He apparently fears that the NRA will be exposed to political pressure, including from the power industry, if it has to make a decision related to the restart of specific nuclear power plants.

In response to Mr. Tanaka’s statement, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura reiterated a provision in the new long-term energy policy that nuclear power plants whose safety is confirmed will be utilized as an important source of electricity for the time being. He also said that a ministerial conference like the one held in restarting the Oi reactors in Fukui Prefecture will not be held in the future to approve the restart of a particular nuclear power plant.

Given the government’s attitude, it is very likely that nuclear power plants will be restarted only if they pass the NRA’s scrutiny and power companies get approval from local governments concerned. The central government’s current policy of passing the buck will only deepen the public’s suspicion over its nuclear power policy.