Japan split over nuclear energy policy as Lower House election nears

November 26, 2012


As anti-nuclear protests continue around Japan, officials and residents in Kaminoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, feel that changes are finally working in their favor concerning a nuclear power plant planned in the town.

They expect opposition leader Shinzo Abe to become prime minister and give the go-ahead to resume construction of the nuclear plant.

“If he becomes the prime minister, the tide will change,” said a 56-year-old man in the construction industry in the town. “I would like him to pursue nuclear power policy like before (the Fukushima accident).”

Reclamation work for Chugoku Electric Power Co.’s nuclear plant in Kaminoseki has been suspended since the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant on March 11 last year.

The accident not only shattered assurances of safety at nuclear power plants and prompted the government to shut down all nuclear reactors in the country, but it also ignited debate over Japan’s energy policy.

Nuclear power generation, which supplied about one-third of the nation’s electricity before the Fukushima accident, is now a key issue in the Dec. 16 Lower House election.

Politicians have floated plans to shift away from nuclear power while continuing to rely on the energy source. Others have called for a clear-cut road map to abolish all nuclear reactors.

Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party has avoided making a clear stance on the issue in its campaign platform for the Dec. 16 election, but the party long promoted nuclear energy when it controlled the government. The LDP is expected to make big gains in the election.

Some veteran politicians, including Ichiro Ozawa and Shizuka Kamei, have adopted a strong anti-nuclear stance ahead of the election. But the Japan Restoration Party weakened its anti-nuclear policy when former Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara took the helm.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s policy is to abandon nuclear energy by 2039. However, doubts remain over the Noda administration’s commitment; it stopped short of seeking Cabinet approval of the policy in the face of mounting pressure from the business circles and the U.S. government. Noda’s Democratic Party of Japan has slid in public opinion polls.

Although the LDP acknowledges the strong anti-nuclear sentiment in the public after last year’s disaster, Abe calls Noda’s phase-out plan “unrealistic.”

Makoto Yagi, president of Kansai Electric Power Co. who also heads the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan, says the nuclear industry will side with Abe.

“The LDP is a party we can relate to,” he said.

With the reactors offline, most power companies fell into the red due to ballooning fuel costs to operate more thermal power plants in place of the reactors.

Kansai Electric on Nov. 26 applied to the government to raise electricity rates for household by 12 percent starting in April, saying its financial survival is at stake.

Analysts said businesses may shift their manufacturing bases abroad to avoid the higher electricity bills. They also say resource-poor Japan must address the question of how to secure a stable supply of natural gas and petroleum if nuclear power is to be abandoned.

However, nationwide efforts by businesses and households to conserve energy after the Fukushima accident generated tangible results. The country is expected to have a 5-percent surplus of power next summer even without restarting additional reactors.

Although the utilities have warned about electricity shortages without nuclear power, the country has had no trouble supplying power with only two of the country’s 50 reactors online.

Nuclear proponents also argue that nuclear power is cheaper and cleaner than fossil fuels.

But in Fukushima Prefecture, trillions of yen are needed to cover compensation for victims of the nuclear accident and decontamination work.

“I cannot understand why some politicians are pushing to restart nuclear plants without confirming their safety at a time when the abnormal situation continues in Fukushima Prefecture,” said Sadaji Asawa, mayor of Otama, a village in the Prefecture.

A number of evacuees from areas near the stricken plant now live in the village.

The Fukushima prefectural government has set a goal of decommissioning all 10 reactors in the prefecture as a central element of its rebuilding plan. It has also refused to accept state subsidies related to hosting nuclear facilities, making clear its determination to break with nuclear energy.

In December, Noda declared the government had regained control of the Fukushima plant and its triple meltdowns.

But there has been little progress in the clean-up efforts, and 160,000 people are still uprooted from their homes.

Toshio Koyama, 70, and his wife, Kimiko, 68, have made trips during the day to their home in the Miyakoji district of Tamura since the ban on entering the district was lifted in April. They drive for more than an hour to return to their temporary housing in Tamura at night.

The Miyakoji district is located about 16 kilometers from the plant.

However, Miyakoji and neighboring districts in April were designated as a zone permitting the rebuilding of infrastructure and decontamination work to prepare for the return of residents.

The radiation levels at Koyama’s home dropped to 0.1 microseivert an hour from 0.5 after decontamination operations by the central government.

“I am still nervous,” Koyama said.

Okuma, a town that co-hosts the Fukushima plant, sits beyond a checkpoint about 15 meters from their home.

If they walk toward the plant, the radiation reading at some locations reaches 30 microsieverts an hour.

“It will be difficult for young people to return here,” Koyama said. “We may remain stranded.”

His concerns about returning home are shared by many others in the prefecture.

The central government organized a gathering in August in the prefectural capital of Fukushima to receive opinions from the public.

One man said: “If it is inhabitable, why don’t bureaucrats and politicians live there first?”

Opposition from residents was also the reason for a lack of progress in building the Kaminoseki nuclear plant, which was first floated in 1982.

But optimism among nuclear proponents in the town has returned with the comeback of Abe, a former prime minister from Yamaguchi Prefecture.

His brother, Nobuo Kishi, will run on the LDP ticket in the constituency that includes Kaminoseki.

“No matter how belatedly, I want the plant to be built,” said Tetsuo Nishi, a 65-year-old town assembly member. “I am sure that Kishi will bring the wishes of our town to a reality.”

(This article was written by Junko Watanbe and Noriyoshi Otsuki.)

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The planned site of a nuclear power plant in Kaminoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The planned site of a nuclear power plant in Kaminoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

  • The planned site of a nuclear power plant in Kaminoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture (Asahi Shimbun file photo)
  • The Asahi Shimbun

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