Kan: Let public decide on nuclear power in Lower House election

April 24, 2012


Former Prime Minister Naoto Kan says the ruling Democratic Party of Japan should create a road map on abandoning nuclear energy and use the plan as a plank in the next Lower House election.

Kan last year called on Japan to reduce its dependence on nuclear energy after the accident started March 11 at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. But the administration of his successor, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, is seeking to restart reactors at the Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture because of concerns about a possible electricity shortage during the peak demand season of summer.

In an interview with the Shukan Asahi weekly magazine, Kan outlined what the DPJ should do and mentioned the various hurdles that exist in moving the nation away from nuclear energy.

Excerpts of the interview follow:

* * *

Question: On April 12, you were involved in the creation of a group of about 70 participants to discuss a road map for moving Japan away from nuclear energy. What was your intention in creating that group?

Kan: Having experienced the crisis of 3/11 as prime minister, I reached the conclusions that "There are no safe nuclear plants" and "What will be important in the future is not to depend on nuclear plants."

While I was prime minister, I proposed the retraction of the basic energy plan, which called for increasing dependence on nuclear energy to 53 percent. Last August, the Diet passed a bill to create a system for the purchase by electric power companies at fixed prices of electricity generated by renewable energy sources. Those actions set the course for a move away from nuclear energy.

We created the group to present a specific road map for moving away from nuclear energy rather than simply talking about such an idea.

Q: What do you think about the Noda administration’s decision that resuming operations at the Oi nuclear plant would be appropriate?

A: Last May, when I was still prime minister, I stopped operations at the Hamaoka nuclear power plant (in Shizuoka Prefecture). One month later, when we were deciding on whether to resume operations at the Genkai nuclear power plant (in Saga Prefecture), Banri Kaieda, the industry minister at the time, asked that the resumption be approved since the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) had decided that operations should resume.

I said: "It is wrong to have only NISA make the decision. Have you sounded out the views of the Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan (NSC)?"

Kaieda and industry ministry officials said, "Under the law, it is NISA that decides whether operations should resume."

I put a stop to simply following laws as in the past and said: "Isn't something wrong with that? NISA bears major responsibility for not being able to stop the nuclear accident (at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant). Do you think the public will be convinced if that agency decided to resume operations?"

As a result, we decided on stricter rules for resuming operations that involved implementing stress tests; having the NSC also involved in the decision; and having the prime minister and three relevant Cabinet ministers make the final decision after hearing the overall view of the local community.

While the Noda administration has continued with procedures to resume operations while fundamentally following those rules, the contents of the discussions have been ambiguous and insufficient.

Q: What was ambiguous?

A: The first is the stance of the NSC.

NSC Chairman (Haruki) Madarame said, "Using only the preliminary stress test evaluation will be insufficient."

If he thought it was insufficient, he should have said what had to be done, but he became ambiguous, saying, "While it is insufficient, the final decision will be left up to the central government."

It is still unclear if the NSC has given its approval for resuming operations at the Oi plant.

Another ambiguity concerns the views of electric power companies, which are arguing that there will be an electricity shortage.

After 3/11, companies have made various efforts, such as operating their own generators and implementing energy conservation measures.

It is extremely unclear if there will really be a shortage of electricity despite such efforts or if the suppliers are simply using data from the extremely hot summers before last year's natural disasters in backing up their argument for an electricity shortage.

When I was prime minister, industry ministry officials did not present the data needed to make a conclusion on this question. I am concerned that those bureaucrats are using the same tactics this time.

Q: What is your view about the strong calls from the business sector for resuming operations?

A: If operations are resumed, in the short term, electricity rates will not go up because electric power companies would not have to use more expensive natural gas and petroleum. That would lead to greater profits for electric power companies.

From a long-term perspective, if an accident occurred, the companies would face a terrible situation, including what to do about compensation.

However, it also appears that the banking groups that have made loans to electric power companies want to speed up the resumption of operations from a short-term perspective because they are more concerned for the time being about collecting back their funds.

Q: How do you feel about the wavering on the part of Yukio Edano, the industry minister, and the statement by Yoshito Sengoku, the acting chair of the DPJ's Policy Research Committee, that not resuming operations would be a form of mass suicide?

A: I have no idea what Sengoku had in mind in making that remark.

However, I believe Edano has not changed his intention to eventually move away from a dependence on nuclear energy since he has said in the Diet, "I want to eventually have no nuclear plants in operation."

At the same time, I feel he is also concerned about what would happen if there was a power shortage because he is being influenced too much by industry ministry officials and by companies that are worried about an electricity shortage.

Q: Have you talked to Noda and Edano?

A: I have not openly done so because I do not think it is good for former prime ministers to be heard too often. However, I have communicated what I feel has been necessary. For that reason, I am confident that they have not changed their fundamental thinking.

However, looking at the way the arguments are proceeding, I am worried that they will be misunderstood.

Q: How do you feel about criticism that the Noda administration acted hastily in deciding to resume reactor operations?

A: I do not believe that the amount of time is what is important for the discussions.

The key point should be a discussion on the supply and demand for electricity, which means whether there will be enough electricity or not.

Having served as prime minister, I know that the central government can never say, "We do not care if there is insufficient electricity."

There will be a need to determine if there really will be an electricity shortage or if there are measures that could be implemented.

I have pointed out that such discussions have been insufficient.

Although there will likely be a major increase in new investments for wind and solar power when July comes around, it will still take a considerable amount of time before there is an actual increase in power generation.

In the short term, the only way to overcome the problems is to reduce peak electricity demand and use more energy conservation measures. All companies and individuals are taking various conservation measures.

After last year's disasters, in an attempt to gain the cooperation of companies and the public for energy conservation, I gave instructions to distribute subsidies to local governments so that smart meters (which inform users in real time of the volume of electricity used and the electricity cost) could be installed in all households.

However, I was told that it would be impossible to immediately install such meters because the nine electric power companies each had their own subcontractors so the specifications for the meters were different among the electric power companies.

If that is the case, consideration should be given to spreading the installation of storage batteries in households.

I feel the discussions related to resumption of operations at the Oi plant were distorted because there was no mention of such alternatives.

Q: How do you view the distrust felt by the public about what the central government is doing?

A: The central government's decision to restart the Oi reactors is extremely ambiguous and it is difficult to ascertain what it means.

Was the decision to resume operations made in the process of reaching the peak of what could be considered Mount Fuji in terms of moving away from nuclear energy? Or does it mean that the government is returning to its old nuclear energy stance by retreating, as it were, to Lake Kawaguchiko at the foot of Mount Fuji?

I believe that is the reason behind the distrust felt by the public.

Q: Do you believe the move away from nuclear energy will proceed?

A: In Germany, after they declared their intention to move away from nuclear energy, they stopped operations at seven reactors. They subsequently presented their public with a road map that said all reactors would be stopped by 2022. At the same time, they are still operating nine reactors.

Rather than move straight away to stopping all reactors, Germany has also said that it will make room for exceptions when an oil crisis arises and continue operating nuclear plants.

Japan has followed the opposite course as Germany.

After the natural disasters, we intentionally stopped operations at the Hamaoka plant and we also implemented stricter rules for resuming operations after periodic inspections. That has meant that now 53 (of all 54) reactors are offline.

Viewed objectively, Japan has made more progress over the past year to move away from nuclear energy.

However, because the decision to resume operations was made while the ultimate direction was left ambiguous, discussions on the two issues--moving away from nuclear energy and resuming operations--were mixed up.

Q: Isn't it true that even as prime minister, you faced resistance from central government ministries that made compiling a road map for moving away from nuclear energy very difficult?

A: A private draft that will be the starting point for discussions in our group already exists. It calls for stopping all nuclear reactors between 2020 and 2030 as well as increasing natural energy sources.

At the same time, it is true that there are elements that want to take the move away from nuclear energy back to square one.

The industry ministry has a panel to examine fundamental issues under the comprehensive natural resources and energy research committee. Among the 25 members are some who hold similar views to members of our group. At the same time, there are other members who are calling for nuclear power to maintain a 35 percent share of all power generation in 2030 and arguing for the construction of new reactors.

There will be a need for the central government to be careful about what intentions are held in comments made to grasp the "invisible arbitrary intentions."

Q: What do you mean by arbitrary intentions?

A: For example, while keeping it hidden from me, the industry ministry tried to draw up a plan for resuming operations at other nuclear power plants as quickly as possible in exchange for stopping operations at the Hamaoka plant.

However, that plan had to be aborted when I said, "While it is all right to stop operations at the Hamaoka plant, it will not be right to resume operations at other plants only with the approval of NISA, but stress tests should also be implemented."

Bureaucrats are always acting while thinking about what would help the interests of their ministry.

In the industry ministry, there are some bureaucrats who favor promoting renewable energy sources, but they have not yet reached the point of agreeing to stop nuclear plant operations.

For those reasons, there are some in the ministry who want to use the resumption of Oi plant operations as a lever to do away with the proposal to move away from nuclear energy.

Q: Even when you were prime minister, there was resistance to your call for moving away from nuclear energy from within the government and DPJ to such an extent that you had to say it was your personal view.

A: The nuclear energy "village" was built up over a span of 40 years and held immense authority before 3/11. While its influence has receded after the natural disasters, it has not been eliminated. However, in the end, it will be the public that decides. It is the role of politicians to present alternatives on what will be done and by when.

Q: How do you feel about the similarity in the arguments being made by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto?

A: He is very clever. By making only partial arguments, he has left open room for making various excuses in the future that would allow for different measures to be taken. For example, regarding the resumption of operations at the Oi plant, he is commenting from the standpoint of a major shareholder in Kansai Electric Power Co. and has taken a stance of not telling the central government what it should do.

However, the government and ruling party cannot make such excuses. That is why it is facing such difficulties.

We stopped operations at Hamaoka not based on a precondition that all reactors would halt operations, but it was an emergency measure to stop operations based on data presented by the science ministry that showed a high danger from earthquakes.

If the central government is to make a decision to move away from nuclear energy, that would be a very important decision, so there would be a need to present such a proposal to the public and have them make a judgment.

European nations held referendums, but because Japan does not have a law for referendums, it will have to take the form of a national election.

Q: How do you view the fact that the opposition Liberal Democratic Party has maintained silence regarding the resumption of operations at the Oi plant?

A: Excluding (Lower House member) Taro Kono, a majority of LDP members likely in their hearts favor resumption of operations.

They may be remaining silent while snickering at the criticism that the DPJ is facing.

In its policy package released recently, the LDP said it would continue discussions on nuclear energy for 10 years and then reach a conclusion.

That is why I believe the DPJ must put together a road map in time for the next Lower House election so that we can ask voters to make a choice between the two parties.

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Naoto Kan (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Naoto Kan (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

  • Naoto Kan (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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