Oi restart policy deeply divides ruling party, nation

June 09, 2012


Despite Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s personal appeal on June 8 for the restarts of two offline nuclear reactors in Fukui Prefecture, a large group of his own lawmakers appear determined to stage a last-minute stand against the policy.

In the run-up to Noda’s news conference, members of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan were engaged in a tug-of-war on the issue, with opponents of the restarts at the Oi nuclear plant’s No. 3 and No. 4 reactors sometimes forcing the leadership onto the back foot.

Passions ran high at a hastily arranged party meeting nine hours before Noda talked.

Lower House member Nobuhiko Suto told his fellow lawmakers: “I am absolutely opposed to restarting the reactors in the current situation. We can manage to (avoid power shortages) by saving electricity.”

Ben Hashimoto, another Lower House member, said: “The United States (only) decided to build (a new nuclear reactor) 30 years after the accident at Three Mile Island. Why does the nation that suffered atomic bombings decide to restart the reactors now?”

But Yoshito Sengoku, the acting chairman of the Policy Research Committee who has spearheaded efforts to restart the reactors, shot back that nuclear plants in the United States had continued to operate after the Three Mile Island accident, just like the government was proposing should happen in Japan.

Another supporter of the restarts, former industry minister Masayuki Naoshima, warned: “Not a drop of tap water will be available once electricity is cut off.”

With the critics refusing to back down, the leadership was forced to agree to hold another meeting before Noda, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura, industry minister Yukio Edano and nuclear policy minister Goshi Hosono make their formal decision on the restarts as early as next week.

Seishu Makino, senior vice industry minister, was a particular focus of criticism from anti-nuclear lawmakers at the meeting and was forced to promise to inform his boss, Edano, of the content of the discussions.

The opponents made clear the extent of their support within the DPJ on June 5, when they submitted a petition--carrying the names of 117 DPJ Diet members, nearly a third of party lawmakers--calling on Noda to reconsider the restarts.

Two senior vice ministers of the Noda Cabinet supported it, and another prominent signature was former DPJ President Ichiro Ozawa, a constant thorn in Noda’s side who has staked out a position as an opponent of Noda’s plans to raise the consumption tax rate. There are signs that the issue of the restarts is becoming mixed up with the consumption tax issue and factional scheming.

Many DPJ lawmakers opposed to the proposed consumption tax hike, a position associated with the Ozawa faction, are stepping up criticism of the reactor restarts.

In a speech on June 8, Shozo Azuma, a former senior minister at the Cabinet Office and a member of the Ozawa group, called for caution on the reactivation.

“It is difficult to restart the reactors unless (the government) decides what to do in case a problem occurs,” Azuma said.

An official at the prime minister’s office said: “The timing is bad. Tax hike opponents will get recharged (by the nuclear controversy).”

Similarly, wider public opinion is highly skeptical of Noda’s policy. According to an Asahi Shimbun survey conducted in May, 54 percent of respondents were opposed to restarting the Oi reactors, compared with 29 percent in favor. The Cabinet support rate was 29 percent and the non-support rate was 51 percent.

One DPJ lawmaker said, “(The DPJ) has lost significant amounts of support from female voters, as the Noda Cabinet hurried to get the reactors restarted, and it suffered a serious blow.”

Noda’s personal appeal on June 8 was the product of maneuvering by Fukui Governor Issei Nishikawa, whose approval the government needs to give the final go-ahead for the restarts at Oi.

The governor has put a number of conditions on that approval, such as provisional safety standards, a special oversight structure and getting the consent of neighboring prefectures, including Shiga and Kyoto. But a key demand, pressed onto Hosono when he met Nishikawa on June 4 but repeatedly called for before that date, was for a direct address to the public by Noda making clear that the restarts are necessary.

Fujimura was notably reluctant to that demand. Hosono’s failure to get Nishikawa’s consent on June 4 eventually forced the issue, and the central government closely coordinated with the Fukui prefectural government on Noda’s statements.

The address was full of phrases that appeared to be directly addressed at Fukui Prefecture.

“It is Fukui Prefecture and Oi town that have supported the Kansai region (in electricity supply),” he said. “We must renew our respect and gratitude to the host governments that have supplied electricity while dealing with nuclear power generation for more than 40 years.”

At the news conference, Noda acknowledged that the restarts were “an issue that splits public opinion in two.”

But he argued that not only the lives of people in the region, but also the nation's economy and society were at stake.

“Should blackouts occur, some people’s lives will be put at risk, and there would be major confusion in daily life and economic activity,” he said. “I made the judgment taking the stability of Japan’s overall economy and society into account.”

Noda admitted that current safety standards were provisional, but ruled out the option of limiting the Oi reactors’ operations to summer, something advocated by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto and other leading politicians in Kansai.

The prime minister said the reliance on nuclear power will be reduced as much as possible, but emphasized that nuclear plants will be an important source of electricity generation. Despite the fact that the causes of the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant have yet to be identified, Noda also stated categorically: “Reactor cores will not be damaged even if all electricity sources are lost.”

After his news conference, Nishikawa said in a statement: “I received his comments seriously (because the prime minister) addressed the government’s fundamental thinking and his strong feelings toward the public.”

Fukui is home to 14 nuclear reactors, the most in the nation, and has received 346 billion yen ($4.34 billion) in subsidies related to nuclear facilities.

Sources said Nishikawa demanded Noda’s personal appeal to pave the way for restarting other reactors and allowing Fukui to continue to be a center of nuclear power generation.

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Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda at a news conference on June 8 (The Asahi Shimbun)

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda at a news conference on June 8 (The Asahi Shimbun)

  • Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda at a news conference on June 8 (The Asahi Shimbun)
  • Fukui Governor Issei Nishikawa (Asahi Shimbun file photo)
  • Oi nuclear power plant (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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