One of the most important policy issues that should be debated extensively during the campaign for the Dec. 16 Lower House election is whether to abolish nuclear power generation in this country or maintain it at a certain level.
The nation’s energy policy, which shapes the future of Japan, is one of the biggest points in dispute in the coming election.
NEW CONNECTION BETWEEN PEOPLE AND POLITICS
The disaster that broke out last year at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant has made many Japanese people keenly aware of the serious problems with the government’s traditional nuclear power policy. They have recognized the inherent risks of nuclear power generation and the sins of politicians and bureaucrats who have been trying to conceal the dangers from the public as vital issues that have direct bearing on their lives.
This new awareness has motivated large numbers of citizens to join anti-nuclear demonstrations in front of the prime minister’s office.
A “national debate” on the future of the energy policy that was held this summer was insufficient, but it has created a new connection between people and politics.
A top executive of a major company has noticed a change.
“When you question what electric utilities do in even the slightest way at a government advisory council, you come under pressure from the next day. That has long been the norm for energy policy debate at the government,” the executive says. “But we are now finally seeing the emergence of a democratic approach to energy debate, and this is a change that can no longer be stopped.”
This “irreversible change” should first be recognized as a common basis for energy policy debate.
When nuclear energy policy is considered from this point of view, one thing is clear: There is no way to expand nuclear power generation.
Under the traditional nuclear power policy--and under the pretext of supporting regional development--the government poured huge amounts of money into depopulated local communities in exchange for their acceptance of nuclear power plants with multiple reactors. But the Fukushima nuclear disaster has exposed the problems and limitations of this modus operandi.
Nuclear safety standards will be tightened significantly, further increasing the amounts of money needed to build nuclear plants.
In addition, it has become clear that few nuclear reactors are actually needed to meet power demand.
All of this clearly justifies reducing Japan’s dependence on nuclear energy.
SHOW ROAD MAPS
The parties should offer clear answers to three key questions concerning nuclear power generation.
Firstly, what specific processes and time frames do they have in mind for reducing nuclear power generation, and how will they solve the problem of radioactive waste?
Secondly, what are their blueprints for dealing with the predicament of Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the operator of the disaster-stricken nuclear power plant, and for the government’s involvement in sharing the financial burden related to the accident, such as compensation to victims, the costs of decontamination and the decommissioning of reactors?
Thirdly, how do they intend to carry out reforms of the power supply system, including the separation of power transmission operations from power generation?
The parties should present clear road maps regarding all three questions.
The ruling Democratic Party of Japan has decided to promise to phase out nuclear power generation by the end of the 2030s in its election manifesto.
However, the party has failed to present details of this initiative along with specific plans and schedules for achieving the goal. Voters doubt the DPJ is really committed to its vision of a nuclear-free society.
Voters also need to hear more details about how the parties would allocate the new financial burden coming from reducing nuclear power generation, such as higher fuel costs. Answers are also needed on how to deal with the United States, which is expressing concerns about Japan’s new energy policy, and local governments in areas that host nuclear plants.
These challenges are also shared by New Komeito and other smaller parties, which have pledged to push the nation toward a future without nuclear power.
The main opposition Liberal Democratic Party has been criticizing the DPJ’s “zero nuclear power” policy as “irresponsible,” but it has yet to make clear its own vision for the nation’s energy future.
If the LDP proposes to maintain a certain amount of nuclear power generation, the party should reveal its plans to deal with a growing amount of radioactive waste. It is unacceptable for the LDP to say it “will consider the issue over 10 years” without summarizing its past policy of promoting nuclear power generation.
Another pressing issue is the response to the crisis at TEPCO. The current framework, which puts all the financial burden of dealing with the consequences of the accident, including decontamination costs, on the utility, is unraveling. The situation could lead to serious disruptions in efforts to rebuild and revive devastated communities in Fukushima Prefecture and secure a stable power supply.
The cost of cleaning up the mess left by the accident, which far exceeds the maximum possible amount that can be saved through restructuring measures at TEPCO, will be passed onto consumers either through hikes in electric charges or taxes. How should the burden be shared?
Debate on this issue should also lead to effective reforms of both the nuclear power policy, which is designed to promote production of electricity with nuclear energy by private-sector companies, and the system to compensate for damage caused by nuclear accidents.
RESENTMENT ABOUT ‘NO OPTION’
It will obviously be a Herculean task to persuade the public to accept an additional burden.
The same consumers who eagerly cooperated with the government’s call for power conservation reacted angrily to TEPCO’s plan to raise electricity rates because they had no other choice but to buy electricity from the utility.
The current power supply system, in which electric power companies are allowed to monopolize regional power markets, poses huge hurdles to new entries into the business and the introduction of new technologies.
The administration of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has decided to revamp the system and separate the operation of power grids from the power generation business to promote the diversification of power suppliers and the emergence of new services. The idea is to secure a sufficient power supply while cutting down nuclear power generation by promoting the use of renewable energy sources and at-home electricity production.
Previous LDP governments put the priority on ensuring a stable power supply through the regional monopoly system and protected the vested interests of existing large utilities. Will the party now change its policy? It should lay out its own vision for the future of the power supply system as soon as possible.
What is baffling is Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto. As the chief of the local government responsible for a huge power consumption area, Hashimoto had been expressing support to proposals to slash nuclear power generation and reform the power supply system. But Hashimoto’s Japan Restoration Party dropped its “zero nuclear power” plank from its policy platform as his party on Nov. 17 decided to merge with the newly created Sunrise Party, headed by Shintaro Ishihara, who is antagonistic to the anti-nuclear movement.
Hashimoto owes the Japanese voters a clear explanation on what kind of nuclear power policy he plans to pursue.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Nov. 19
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