Parties offer variety of choices on future of nuclear energy in Japan

December 05, 2012


Fumio Nanba has lost his home, company, income and almost all hope. But he still has a vote that he plans to use in pursuit of a society free from nuclear energy.

“We have no choice but to phase out nuclear power plants to prevent more people from becoming like us,” he said.

Nanba, 63, used to live only 4 kilometers from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant in the town of Okuma, where he headed a general contractor. But the accident at the plant last year forced him to flee.

He relocated many times before finally settling in Iwaki, a city 40 km from the stricken plant, in October last year. His new neighborhood is now home to 156 households from Okuma.

Nanba has been asked to move out of the temporary housing in Iwaki next year, but there is little hope for a return to Okuma. In November, the central government designated the area encompassing his Okuma home as a zone that will be uninhabitable for at least five years.

The future of Japan’s nuclear reactors, a product of a long-time central government policy, is at the center of debate in campaigning for the Dec. 16 Lower House election. It will be the nation’s first national vote since the meltdowns at the Fukushima plant, the worst nuclear accident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

Voters are split on energy policy. Businesses warn of dire economic consequences if certain changes are made. And other experts say further issues must be addressed or at least raised in the energy debate.

Most of the political parties are seeking a shift away from nuclear power, but by varying degrees, and plan to promote wind, solar and other renewable energy sources.

However, the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party is taking a more cautious stance, while the Japan Restoration Party is now being led by the pro-nuclear Shintaro Ishihara.

Takemi Kudo, an 82-year-old man who runs a guest house in the town of Oma in Aomori Prefecture, is ambivalent about nuclear power.

Electric Power Development Co. resumed construction of a nuclear plant in Oma in October.

The work was suspended after the Fukushima accident, dealing a blow to the cash-strapped town, which is known for large tuna caught by single-hook fishing. The town will be deprived of state subsidies related to the nuclear project if it is canceled, as well as money that construction workers would spend in the town.

“I am scared of having a nuclear power plants after seeing an accident of that scale,” Kudo said. “But it is also true that we have to make a living somehow.”

A 55-year-old tuna fisherman says Oma should proceed with its plan to host a nuclear facility.

“Without a nuclear power plant, a fishing town on the farthest land (to the north) will not be able to survive,” he said. “(The plant) will be ‘safe’ since the central government says so.”

In the election campaign that started on Dec. 4, the Japanese Communist Party, the Social Democratic Party and the Tomorrow Party of Japan promised to immediately abolish nuclear power and later decommission reactors.

The JCP vowed not to endorse restarts of any of the nation’s 50 reactors, including the two at the Oi plant in Fukui Prefecture that are the only ones online.

The Tomorrow Party of Japan pledged to immediately shut down the Oi reactors and to reject restarts of other reactors under a 10-year road map called “the curriculum for graduating from nuclear power.”

The party, hastily established about a week before the start of the campaign, charted a course to “pull out of nuclear power completely by 2022 at the latest.”

The ruling Democratic Party of Japan, the Buddhist-backed New Komeito, and Your Party are calling for a more gradual shift away from nuclear power.

The DPJ envisions a nuclear-free Japan in the 2030s, while Your Party’s blueprint is for zero nuclear energy in the 2020s.

New Komeito is more ambiguous, stating that Japan should be nuclear-free “as promptly as possible.” The party, a long-time ally of the LDP, is closer to the DPJ on nuclear power policy.

The DPJ, New Komeito and Your Party share the stance that they will approve restarts of reactors if their safety is confirmed by the Nuclear Regulation Authority, a new industry watchdog established after the Fukushima disaster.

The parties intend to reduce the number of reactors in operation by decommissioning those with more than 40 years of service, in principle.

Most of the parties calling for the abolition of nuclear energy have also promised to overhaul the industry by separating power generation from distribution and transmission.

Under the proposal, utilities will be required to spin off their divisions in charge of power distribution and transmission, making it easier for businesses to enter the fledgling market for wind, solar and other renewable energy sources.

In contrast, the LDP, which has long promoted nuclear power, is cautious about changing the nation’s energy policy.

Its platform states that the party “will strive to build an economy and a society that do not need to rely on nuclear power.” But the LDP stopped short of taking a clear stand on the future of nuclear power in Japan.

“(The party) will determine within 10 years at the latest the best mix of electricity sources that will be sustainable,” the party’s platform said.

The LDP also stated that it will make a decision within three years on whether to bring idle reactors online. It is poised to restart reactors that the Nuclear Regulation Authority declares safe.

LDP President Shinzo Abe has suggested Japan should continue to rely on nuclear power to a certain extent.

“Japan should not completely rely on renewables, which are not yet fully developed,” Abe said.

The Japan Restoration Party set a target that stated: “Nuclear power generation at existing reactors would fade out by the 2030s.”

The party’s founder and acting chief, Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, once stated that Japan should move away from nuclear power generation. He also opposed the restarts of the Oi reactors in the summer.

However, he eventually accepted the Oi restarts, and softened his anti-nuclear stance after former Tokyo Governor Ishihara became the party leader.

Economic circles have been consistently critical of proposals for a nuclear phaseout, calling it “unrealistic.”

Business leaders argue that renewables cannot ensure a stable power supply, and that their use will not spread as easily as hoped.

They also say that without nuclear power, more thermal power plants will have to be used, which will inflate fuel costs and ultimately lead to increases in electricity rates.

Countering these arguments, Your Party presented in its campaign platform a trial calculation that shows the costs for power generation through nuclear energy actually exceed those for thermal or wind power--if compensation to victims of a nuclear accident and costs to decommission reactors are included.

“Nuclear power will die out even under market principles, too,” Your Party stated in its platform.

The price tag for compensating victims of the Fukushima accident and decommissioning the four crippled reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 plant is expected to be trillions of yen.

But abandoning nuclear energy would create other issues, including what to do with the nuclear fuel recycling program, in which spent fuel from nuclear power plants is reprocessed and recycled.

The program, which has yet to be put into force due to a series of problems, is based on the assumption that Japan will continue with nuclear power generation.

The DPJ and New Komeito have called for a review of the program, but they did not make clear if it should be maintained or scrapped.

The SDP, the JCP, Your Party and the Tomorrow Party of Japan have suggested ending the program.

However, a number of communities host facilities for the nuclear fuel recycling program, such as Rokkasho village in Aomori Prefecture, where a recycling plant is being constructed. These communities have built their economies around the expensive program.

The LDP has yet to present a detailed future course of the program.

Another related question is what to do with three nuclear reactors currently under construction and nine others on the drawing board.

Although the DPJ adopted a policy of not approving new reactor projects, it gave the green light for the resumption of work on the three reactors under construction, including one at the Oma plant in Aomori Prefecture.

The three new reactors, if built, will also hamper the DPJ’s goal of abandoning nuclear power by 2039, since it plans to decommission reactors that are over 40 years old.

Hitoshi Yoshioka, a professor of history of science and vice president of Kyushu University, said the LDP was avoiding showing its true stance on nuclear power in the election campaign.

“I am under the impression that it wants to wait before deciding to return to an energy policy relying on nuclear energy,” he said.

Yoshioka also criticized other parties for not discussing the future of the nuclear fuel recycling program.

“Even political parties calling for the abolition of nuclear energy did not fully mention a review of the recycling program, a step crucial to pulling the plug on nuclear energy,” he said. “They need to present a path.”

Akihiro Sawa, executive senior fellow at the 21st Century Public Policy Institute, criticized anti-nuclear parties for talking about what Japan should be like decades later, not in the immediate future.

“The important thing is to discuss what they will do in the coming three to four years, when the nation will have to decide on whether it should turn on its idle reactors,” he said. “But the parties did not present voters any realistic answers to such questions.”

(This article was compiled from reports by Kentaro Uechi, Mari Fujisaki, Hiroshi Takata and Hajime Horiguchi.)

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Voters listen to a speech by a politician in Fukushima Prefecture on Dec. 4, when official campaigning for the Lower House election kicked off. (Toshiyuki Hayashi)

Voters listen to a speech by a politician in Fukushima Prefecture on Dec. 4, when official campaigning for the Lower House election kicked off. (Toshiyuki Hayashi)

  • Voters listen to a speech by a politician in Fukushima Prefecture on Dec. 4, when official campaigning for the Lower House election kicked off. (Toshiyuki Hayashi)
  • The Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture (Asahi Shimbun file photo)
  • The Asahi Shibun

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