He may have been heavily criticized and demoted, but Yoshito Sengoku has emerged as the key politician pushing the government’s move to resume operations at the Oi nuclear power plant.
Although Sengoku only holds the post of acting chair of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan’s Policy Research Committee, he has attended meetings involving Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and three Cabinet ministers about restarting two reactors at the Oi nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture.
The trust that many central government bureaucrats hold toward him as well as his ties to the business sector have expanded Sengoku’s influence. At one time, he was considered more influential than the prime minister.
But a string of controversies has brought him down a notch.
In the past, Sengoku angered Okinawa prefectural officials for suggesting the prefecture should just go along and accept having U.S. military bases there.
He was also the target of a censure motion in the Upper House over the handling of Japan’s nasty spat with China over the Senkaku Islands.
In the latest controversy, Sengoku said in an April 16 speech in Nagoya: "If no nuclear plants are in operation, that would, in a sense, be equivalent to Japan committing mass suicide."
Sengoku was attempting to gain understanding from the public for a resumption of operations at the Oi plant.
“Last year's planned rolling blackouts clearly showed that life in Japanese society and the economy could not continue without electricity," he said.
On April 14, Yukio Edano, the industry minister in charge of the electric power industry, met with Fukui Governor Issei Nishikawa to ask for the prefectural government's approval to resume operations at the Oi plant. Sengoku, in the meantime, was meeting with members of the DPJ's Fukui prefectural chapter.
"While we have to move away from fossil fuels and nuclear energy at the same time, it will be a very difficult task," Sengoku said. "At the present time, we simply have to make the political decision to resume operations (at the Oi plant)."
Sengoku’s attendance at the meetings of Cabinet ministers on the Oi plant issue has allowed him to lead the direction of those talks.
On the morning of April 13, he told a fellow lawmaker: "There are some who are critical, but a decision will be made tonight. Tomorrow, Edano will go to Fukui."
Sure enough, the Cabinet ministers later that day decided that resuming operations at the Oi plant was appropriate, and Edano's itinerary for visiting Fukui was drawn up.
Sengoku has always distanced himself from the stance of Naoto Kan when he was prime minister to move Japan away from its dependence on nuclear energy.
Last May, Kan asked Chubu Electric Power Co. to halt operations at its Hamaoka nuclear power plant in Shizuoka Prefecture.
Sengoku, then deputy chief Cabinet secretary, appeared on a TV program shortly after Kan's request and said: "When we look at earthquake probabilities, there is little concern for the nuclear plants on the Sea of Japan coast and along the Seto Inland Sea. We will maintain our nuclear energy policy."
At a June meeting of the central government's energy and environment council, Sengoku said, "There will be a shortage of electricity unless we resume operations at nuclear plants."
With Kan also hesitant about resuming operations at nuclear plants that had undergone periodic inspections, Sengoku worked with Edano, the chief Cabinet secretary at the time, to persuade Kan to accept a framework on making political decisions on the resumption of nuclear plant operations. That framework involved having electric power companies conduct stress tests on nuclear reactors as well as establishing a meeting of relevant Cabinet ministers to decide on whether nuclear power operations should be resumed.
After Noda replaced Kan as prime minister last September, he left matters about resuming operations to Sengoku and Edano.
Sengoku is also playing an important role in revising the management structure of Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. One important precondition of the comprehensive special business plan compiled by TEPCO is the resumption of operations at its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant in Niigata Prefecture.
If the plant does not resume operations, the higher fuel costs needed to operate the thermal power plants in place of the nuclear plant would cut into TEPCO's earnings, which could lead to a further burden on taxpayers.
If the nation can manage to get through this summer without resumption of operations at the Oi plant, there is a possibility that operations at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant could also be delayed.
Those close to Sengoku also said it would be difficult to obtain the understanding of the public for the increase in the consumption tax rate that Noda is pushing if the public was asked to shoulder an additional burden because nuclear plants were kept offline.
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