The ruling party is getting increasingly annoyed, the electric power industry is worried, and opposition parties see an opportunity.
But they all appear unwilling or unable to take a bold move, wondering if former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has an underlying motive for his repeated calls for Japan to immediately abandon nuclear power.
Koizumi, 71, launched his latest salvo, an hourlong anti-nuclear speech Nov. 12, at a packed Japan National Press Club in Tokyo.
His target was clear: the man he had handpicked to succeed him as prime minister in 2006.
Koizumi mentioned Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s name six times during the speech.
“If Abe set a policy to close down all nuclear power plants, opponents of anti-nuclear power (within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party) would not be able to object,” Koizumi said.
Although government and LDP leaders have called Koizumi potentially “troublesome” in their plans to restart nuclear reactors to underpin the economy, they have largely avoided a head-on clash with the former prime minister, who remains widely popular in Japan.
About an hour after the Nov. 12 session--Koizumi’s first with reporters since he retired from politics--Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga only emphasized the importance for the government to promote a “responsible” energy policy.
LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba tried to play down the differences in opinion between the ruling party and Koizumi.
“(The LDP) seeks to reduce Japan’s reliance on nuclear power, so we are heading to a direction he is eyeing,” he said.
Abe, 59, who has called for an eventual easing of Japan’s reliance on nuclear power generation, responded to earlier anti-nuclear statements by his “master teacher in politics” on a TV news show broadcast on Nov. 9.
“It will be irresponsible for me to promise now to completely abandon nuclear power,” he said.
However, pro-nuclear members of the LDP are showing increasing signs that they are fed up with Koizumi’s calls to rid Japan of nuclear energy. Even a close ally during his reign as prime minister from 2001 to 2006 was put off by his arguments.
“I believe that Koizumi should be credited with raising the question (about the nuclear policy), but he reached the wrong conclusion,” said Hiroyuki Hosoda, executive acting secretary-general who heads a group of lawmakers lobbying for reactor restarts. “Relying on fossil fuels will escalate global warming. The prevailing tide in the world is not about emotion, but about scientific grounds.”
Hosoda was chief Cabinet secretary in the Koizumi administration.
Koizumi lived up to his “maverick” politician moniker as prime minister, using such unorthodox tactics as promising to “destroy” his faction-dominated LDP, pushing through his postal privatization plan despite opposition from party heavyweights, and fielding “assassin” candidates to defeat his enemies in elections.
His repeated anti-nuclear declarations, and his increasing pressure on Abe and Japanese lawmakers, have fueled speculation that Koizumi may re-enter the political arena.
On Nov. 12, Koizumi said that Abe, as the nation’s top leader, can wield his authority for a “grand project” to phase out nuclear energy and pursue renewable energy sources.
The former prime minister also said that most parties and many LDP lawmakers actually oppose the Abe administration’s push to restart nuclear reactors.
“The LDP is the only party objecting (to a break with nuclear power generation), but I believe that half of its politicians are opposed (to the party policy line) in their heart,” he said.
Koizumi acknowledged that some politicians have suggested that he establish a new party under the anti-nuclear banner or join a political force working for the cause.
But he stopped short of committing himself.
“We should work on our own,” he said.
Anti-nuclear calls in Japan have faded since large demonstrations were held around the country following the triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami in March 2011.
The government is now set to restart reactors if they meet the new safety guidelines of the Nuclear Regulation Authority. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry is expected to soon draw up the new Basic Energy Plan based on the premise that the nation will continue to rely on nuclear power as a key energy source.
Koizumi has rekindled interest in the anti-nuclear movement, and opposition parties see him as a chance to chip away at the public support of the ruling coalition, which controls both chambers of the Diet.
“We have something in common (with Koizumi),” said Kazuo Shii, leader of the Japanese Communist Party.
But with Koizumi showing no commitment to return to politics, the opposition parties cannot use the former prime minister to galvanize their forces.
LDP politicians opposed to nuclear power are also having a tough time.
Taro Kono, a Lower House member known for his anti-nuclear stance, and new Diet members from urban constituencies have set up a study group to reassess Japan’s nuclear power policy, including the program to recycle spent nuclear fuel. They have yet to represent a meaningful force within the ruling party.
Officials in the electric power industry, concerned that Koizumi’s popularity could refuel public opinion against nuclear power, criticized his Nov. 12 speech.
“I am wondering about the basis for his arguments,” said a senior official with a leading utility. “I don’t think his stance is based on an understanding of Japan’s energy situation.”
The bottom lines of electric utilities were hit hard after their reactors were shut down following the Fukushima nuclear accident.
However, five of the nation’s 10 regional utilities reported pretax profits in their half-year financial results ending September due to higher electricity rates. They said they need to restart their idled reactors as soon as possible to ensure stable electricity supplies.
According to one estimate, restarting a single reactor will allow an electric power company to save 100 billion yen ($1 billion) annually in the costs for fossil fuels to run thermal power plants.
Some senior utility officials warned that they might have to raise electricity rates again if the nation’s reactors remain idle.
The business community, however, is not necessarily united over the push to bring reactors online.
Young leaders, such as Hiroshi Mikitani, CEO of online retailer Rakuten Inc., and Takeshi Niinami, president and CEO of convenience store chain Lawson Inc., expressed their reservations about restarting reactors at a meeting of the government’s Industrial Competitiveness Council in March.
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