CRUCIAL VOTE: Although quiet on the issue, LDP, New Komeito at odds on nuclear policy

July 17, 2013

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN

Opposition parties are blaring anti-nuclear slogans and calling for phaseouts of atomic power generation. But their positions on Japan’s energy policy--or any other issue for that matter--have failed to dampen expectations of a landslide victory by the ruling coalition in the July 21 Upper House election.

However, one potential battle over nuclear energy could erupt after the votes are counted.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner, New Komeito, are trying not to raise the nuclear issue during the election campaign. But they do, in fact, differ greatly on the subject, including restarting idle reactors, exporting nuclear technology and continuing Japan’s troubled nuclear fuel-cycle program.

The LDP, emboldened by strong support rates for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet, wants to reactivate reactors and make nuclear energy and its technology a driving force of economic growth.

After Abe took power in December, the LDP administration scrapped the goal of its predecessor, led by the Democratic Party of Japan, to close all nuclear power plants by the end of the 2030s.

The DPJ-led government shut down all 50 of the nation’s reactors after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami caused the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant in 2011, although the party later approved the restarts of two reactors in Fukui Prefecture.

During the Lower House election in December, the LDP pledged to “establish an economic and social structure that does not need to rely on nuclear power.”

That promise, however, is absent from the LDP’s campaign platform in the Upper House election.

When the official campaign for the Upper House election kicked off, Abe said the government needed to take a hard look at its past nuclear power policy.

“We have to reflect on the fact that we have pushed ahead with nuclear power policy based on the notion that Japanese nuclear facilities are sturdy enough to withstand any disaster,” Abe said in the prefectural capital of Fukushima on July 4.

But since then, the prime minister has not touched on nuclear power, apparently hoping to prevent the sticky issue from taking center stage amid continuing concerns about the safety of Japan’s nuclear facilities and persistent problems, including leaks of radioactive water, at the crippled Fukushima No. 1 plant.

The LDP during the Lower House campaign vowed to “decide within three years” whether the offline reactors should be reactivated.

The party is now pushing for swift restarts.

In the current campaign, the party pledges to “make utmost efforts to gain the consent of local governments toward restarts” of reactors that clear new safety standards set by the Nuclear Regulation Authority.

New Komeito is also seeking swift action--but toward “a society that does not depend on nuclear power plants.”

The party, backed by the nation’s largest lay-Buddhist organization, is not ruling out all reactor restarts.

But New Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi said the party will not give its approval unless local governments and public opinion accept such restarts.

The coalition partners are perhaps further apart on the expensive and problem-laden nuclear fuel-cycle program, which is intended to recycle spent fuel and help reduce the amount of high-level radioactive waste.

The LDP plans to accelerate research to shorten the hazardous period of highly radioactive waste as part of efforts to keep the nuclear fuel-cycle program alive.

Under the program, plutonium is extracted from reprocessed spent nuclear fuel and later reused at nuclear plants. For this purpose, the reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, was supposed to be completed in 1997.

It remains a work in progress.

And the Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, a plutonium-fueled facility that is a key part of the program, has been out of operation due to a host of problems.

Japan also has yet to decide where and how to dispose of high-level radioactive waste from recycling spent nuclear fuel. In the meantime, Japan’s stockpile of plutonium has reached a level that has raised international concerns about nuclear weapons proliferation.

New Komeito is calling for a review of the nuclear fuel-cycle program. It is pushing a policy switch to bury the nuclear waste without reprocessing spent fuel and to mothball the Monju reactor.

New Komeito also has reservations about the Abe administration’s initiative to export nuclear power plants to other countries, such as Turkey, India and the United Arab Emirates.

“We must be cautious about promoting the exports,” Yamaguchi said before the Upper House election campaign. “We are still coping with the aftermath of the nuclear disaster. There are various things we need to consider.”

Opposition parties have been more direct in their criticism.

Kazuo Shii, chairman of the Japanese Communist Party, said Japan should not become a “merchant of death” through sales of nuclear plants.

The JCP, which expanded its strength in the Tokyo metropolitan assembly election last month, is calling for the immediate abolition of nuclear power plants.

“Reactors should never ever be brought online before the Fukushima accident is put to a complete end,” Shii said.

Mizuho Fukushima, the Social Democratic Party leader, emphasized the need to export renewable energy-related technology instead, citing the nation’s advanced wind and biomass technology.

The SDP has left no doubt that it is opposed to restarting reactors and continuing the nuclear fuel-cycle program. It has called for legislation that commits Japan to move away from nuclear energy.

The DPJ advocates a nuclear phaseout, but it supports restarting reactors declared safe by the NRA.

Banri Kaieda, who leads the DPJ, is trying to differentiate his party from the LDP in the Upper House campaign by insisting the DPJ would not bulldoze reactor restarts over local opposition.

The Japan Restoration Party, led by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto and former Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, aims to phase out nuclear energy by the end of the 2030s.

Still, the party says it supports maintaining the world’s most advanced nuclear technology for the time being.

Your Party’s goal is for Japan to have no nuclear power plants by 2030. Party leader Yoshimi Watanabe said restarts should be prohibited because the entire picture of what went wrong at the Fukushima No. 1 plant has not been revealed.

The party is also urging a withdrawal from the nuclear fuel-cycle program and a halt to government-led exports of nuclear power plants.

Ichiro Ozawa’s People’s Life Party listed the abolition of nuclear power plants by 2022 and an end to the nuclear fuel-cycle program in its campaign platform. Ozawa said bringing reactors online will “put people’s lives at risk.”

Green Wind, a party established by lawmakers who oppose nuclear power, advocates the start of a process by 2023 to decommission all reactors.

New Party Daichi, a regional party in Hokkaido, also aims to break with nuclear power generation and is critical of plans to reactivate the Tomari nuclear power plant on the northern island.

Most parties, including the LDP, have promised to bolster renewables, such as solar, wind and geothermal power.

Your Party calls for the use of funds set aside for nuclear power to promote renewables and have them cover 80 percent of the nation’s electricity needs in 2050.

(This article was compiled from reports by Mari Fujisaki and Takashi Ebuchi.)

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
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Work is under way to prepare for the decommissioning of the No. 3 reactor, front, and the No. 4 reactor, behind at right, at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant on June 11. (Pool)

Work is under way to prepare for the decommissioning of the No. 3 reactor, front, and the No. 4 reactor, behind at right, at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant on June 11. (Pool)

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  • Work is under way to prepare for the decommissioning of the No. 3 reactor, front, and the No. 4 reactor, behind at right, at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant on June 11. (Pool)
  • Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the start of the Upper House election campaign in Fukushima on July 4 (Wataru Sekita)
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