Politicians are quietly lowering anti-nuclear colors raised following the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant as Japan prepares for a second summer of energy shortages and a major debate over restarting suspended reactors.
Under intense pressure from the business world to ensure stable energy supplies, officials of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan are leaning toward allowing the resumption of reactors taken off the grid for periodic inspections.
Meanwhile, the opposition Liberal Democratic Party on Feb. 15 released an interim report on nuclear energy policy that effectively put off forming a definite policy on the future of nuclear energy in Japan for a decade.
The mood in Japan’s halls of power has changed markedly from the stridently anti-nuclear atmosphere under Naoto Kan’s prime ministership. As his administration battled to get the situation at the Fukushima plant under control, Kan called explicitly in late July for a sharp move away from nuclear energy.
But the ruling party's stance has become much less clear since Kan was replaced by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda in September.
At a meeting of the DPJ's energy project team on Feb. 15, representatives of Japan's three major economic organizations urged the resumption of operations at nuclear power plants to ensure a stable supply of electricity this summer.
DPJ policy chief Seiji Maehara has long favored a resumption of operations as well as continued exports of nuclear plant technology, and the energy project team’s chairman is now Akihiro Ohata, a former economy minister who once worked on nuclear power plant design at Hitachi Ltd.
At the Feb. 15 meeting, Ohata said: "While we will be able to overcome the situation this winter due to the cooperation of the public and the efforts made by electric power companies, there are no assurances that the same can be said about this summer."
The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency has now approved the stress tests conducted by Kansai Electric Power Co. on its two reactors at the Oi nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture, opening the way to their resumption.
And the DPJ project team, facing not only a hamstrung nuclear industry but concerns about a cut in petroleum imports from Iran this year due to economic sanctions, is expected to compile a report in March that would call for the resumption of operations at plants on condition that they have passed stress tests and received the consent of local governments in their areas.
Project team members say they are following the lead of government officials who have come out in favor of resuming operations.
The replacement shift from Kan to Noda has also weakened pressure on the LDP to review its nuclear energy policy.
When Kan hinted that he might dissolve the Lower House and call a snap election over whether Japan should move away from nuclear energy, LDP lawmakers called for a review of the party's nuclear energy policy. Fear of losing votes due to the party’s long-standing promotion of the nuclear industry appeared to raise a real possibility of a major shift in policy.
The LDP did establish a committee to discuss nuclear energy policy, but, after Kan stepped down, the issue seemed to lose urgency. An interim report that was initially scheduled to be released in August was not compiled until Feb. 15.
There are still major differences among the LDP members on the nuclear issue. When a draft of the interim report was presented on Feb. 14, anti-nuclear voices within the party were still calling for a decisive move away from nuclear dependence, while members who favor maintaining nuclear plants stressed that stopping plants immediately was not realistic.
The interim report itself, while giving an apology for the nuclear accident at the Fukushima No. 1 plant, only called for a decision on what to do about nuclear plants over the next 10 years, effectively kicking the issue into the long grass.
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