INSIGHT: How firm is the no-nuke policy? It contains get-outs, contradictions

September 15, 2012


The government's pledge to pull the plug on nuclear power by the 2030s could prove to be a hollow promise, with few details yet given on how to achieve it and how to reconcile contradictions along the way.

Observers see the policy as a product of compromise, and something which Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda hopes will both get him re-elected in a party leadership race this month and win support from ordinary voters in the upcoming Lower House election.

Noda himself is unwilling to dump nuclear power. It is instead what the public and many in his Democratic Party of Japan have increasingly been demanding.

On Sept. 14, his administration announced a major reversal of Japan's energy policy, pledging to scrap existing reactors by the 2030s, and to build no new ones.

"We ought to start a strategy that comes with both a certain direction and flexibility," Noda earlier that day told a session of the Energy and Environment Council.

Although the strategy sets a target date in line with a proposal by his party, it was apparently not what Noda really wanted.

"Declaring a specific time limit is not the prime minister's intention," said one of his aides.

Noda himself was leaning toward shrinking nuclear power by 2030 but not abolishing it. He would have preferred to keep it at 15 percent of the nation's total energy makeup, according to aides.

But Noda could not ignore demands from the public, which overwhelmingly called for a full phase-out by 2030. The government held open forums nationwide and solicited comments on the ideal future contribution of nuclear power. It offered two alternatives to zero-nuclear: 15 percent and 20-25 percent, both of which the public rejected.

"Noda needs to win the party's presidential race first," said a lawmaker close to him.

"Some DPJ members working on his re-election team back zero nuclear energy. If they turned their backs on him, it would have cast a pall on the management of a new administration even if he was re-elected."

But the decision on abolition by 2039, albeit a decade later than 2030, provoked criticism, too.

The United States expressed concern over how Japan would manage plutonium generated in recycling spent fuel.

And Hiromasa Yonekura, chairman of Keidanren (Japan Business Federation), the nation's most powerful lobby, called Noda on Sept. 13 to voice his opposition to zero nuclear power.

Under pressure from both an international ally and business leaders, the administration included a clause at the last minute which allows leeway toward scrapping the policy entirely.

"Energy sources available to the nation have been significantly affected by factors such as fuel supply and development of technology in the global market," the clause read.

"It is extremely hard to predict how things may develop in the future and we should make sure that we are able to take a flexible approach."

Motohisa Furukawa, national policy minister, insisted on retaining a clause making it a legal requirement for central and local governments, with the creation of a framework, to achieve the new energy policy.

But in a session on the morning of Sept. 14, the clause was taken out.

With no legal basis behind the policy, the energy industry and local governments are not bound by it.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry is expected to flesh out the policy's details as it compiles the Basic Energy Plan this month.

But that plan comes up for review every three years.

There is no guarantee that an administration in power in 2015 will stick to it.

"If a new administration is formed, the new energy policy could fall through," said a senior official with the industry ministry. The official was referring to the possible outcome of dissolving the Lower House for a snap election.

What appears in conflict with public sentiment and the overall target for the 2030s is the administration's pledge to restart reactors as "important sources of electricity" if they are confirmed to be safe.

Since the 2011 quake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, officials have authorized two of Japan's 50 total reactors to resume activity. The restart came amid widespread public opposition.

The Noda administration plans to approve further reactor restarts if the new nuclear regulatory commission declares they are safe. The commission is due to be formed on Sept. 19.

That, however, could pave the way for Japan to slip back to the situation before the Fukushima disaster, in which it relied on nuclear energy for about 30 percent of all electricity output.

Once reactors are restarted, likely a self-perpetuating rush one after another, plant operators could step up their opposition to abolishing nuclear energy.

It could also slow a nationwide drive to reduce energy use, and sap momentum towards a nuclear-free future.

Meanwhile, recycling spent fuel is another question entirely.

Despite pledging to end nuclear power, the administration offered no change to the problem-laden plan to reprocess spent nuclear fuel to obtain plutonium.

Plutonium can be used to generate electricity, but it is also a material for nuclear weapons.

Critics accused the Noda administration of planning to stockpile plutonium, even as Japan turns its back on nuclear power.

"It makes no sense that rectors will use recycled fuel when they will be decommissioned just a few decades later," said Tadahiro Katsuta, an associate professor of nuclear power policy at Meiji University.

The government has envisaged bringing a fast breeder reactor on-line around 2050 to get the nuclear fuel recycling project to take off.

The Monju plant in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, is a prototype fast breeder reactor built to identify technical hurdles in making the project workable.

The expensive reactor was put to a halt in December 1995 due to a fire accident.

It resumed operation in 2010, but is now offline again due to further trouble.

An official with the education ministry, which is in charge of the Monju project, said the new energy policy entails no change at Monju.

Meanwhile, the plutonium stockpile could raise questions about Japan’s motives for the nuclear fuel recycling program.

"The international community will cast a suspicious eye on Japan if it retains large plutonium reserves that it cannot use at nuclear power plants," said Hitoshi Yoshioka, a professor of history of science and vice president of Kyushu University.

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Anti-nuclear power activists demonstrate at the prime minister's office Sept. 14, calling for the abolition of nuclear power. (Satoru Ogawa)

Anti-nuclear power activists demonstrate at the prime minister's office Sept. 14, calling for the abolition of nuclear power. (Satoru Ogawa)

  • Anti-nuclear power activists demonstrate at the prime minister's office Sept. 14, calling for the abolition of nuclear power. (Satoru Ogawa)

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