Originally Published 2012-06-21 00:00:00 Published on Jun 21, 2012
As the debate on restarting two nuclear reactors in Oi is hotting up in Japan, the Noda government needs to both give the newly announced nuclear regulatory body time to create the promised new regulations while also ensuring the people and industry do not suffer due to power shortage.
Growing differences on the future of nuclear energy in Japan
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has expressed strong determination to restart the reactor Nos. 3 and 4 of the Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui prefecture, saying "the nuclear power plants are important sources of electricity." The local governments have given their approval and the work to resume operations is expected to start by the end of June now. The reactors will take at least three weeks to start operating at full capacity. Mayor Shinobu Tokioka of Oi has pointed towards fears of power shortage and the impoverishment of the local economy if the plants remain closed as the reasons for his decision. Fukui Governor Issei Nishikawa, whose prefecture is home to 14 nuclear reactors and has received $4.34 billion in subsidies related to these nuclear facilities, also shares these fears and hopes that Noda’s personal appeal will allow Fukui to remain a center of nuclear power generation in Japan. The government has also been working at dismantling the widely criticised "nuclear village," which is a term used to allude to the cozy relations that bureaucrats, politicians of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) share with nuclear utilities. In this regard, The government, led by Noda of the Democratic Party of Japan, has reached a compromise deal with the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to create a new independent and more powerful nuclear regulatory regime, which is expected to be up and running by September.

The government’s position on nuclear energy, especially the reopening of the Oi reactors, is facing a lot of opposition. The Pew Research Center has found that the public opinion towards nuclear energy has worsened considerably even from the weeks immediately following the Fukushima crisis. Only 44% of Japanese were in favour of reducing Japan’s dependence on nuclear energy in the weeks following the crisis in 2011. This number has jumped to 70% in 2012, and it has caused many to accuse the government’s decision to restart the Oi reactors of being undemocratic and an attempt to ignore the will of the Japanese people.

Furthermore, many have claimed that the government’s position proves the continued existence of the "nuclear village" and the political pull of nuclear utilities companies. The move to restart nuclear reactors faces severe opposition from within the ruling DPJ as well. Hundred and seventeen DPJ Diet members have sent in a petition to their own Prime Minister, asking him to reconsider his policy towards resumption of nuclear power plants. There are fears amongst many in the Prime Minister’s office that Ichiro Ozawa, who is considered to head the faction of DPJ opposing the restart plan, is mixing the issues of a consumption tax hike, a proposal to double the consumption tax to 10%, with the nuclear restarts for political mileage.

Noda has consistently failed in trying to bring Ozawa on board regarding both issues. The opposition to the restart of nuclear reactors calls for more energy conservation, claiming that this policy would be more in line with public opinion and also pointing at the disciplined way in which the Japanese people dealt with similar hardships in the summer of 2011 as well. The opponents of the government’s position also point to statistics that show that only three regions face power shortages at current levels, with Kansai being the only region to face a significant shortage of 16.3%.

The government though insists that nuclear power remains important, if not essential, in maintaining the standard of living of the Japanese people and levels of growth in the economy. The government alludes to the devastating effects that power cuts and shortages have on small businesses, using the hardships and immense losses faced by sushi shops and similar establishments as a case to strengthen their point. Even larger firms would be forced to decrease working hours and face a loss in efficiency, which would have a detrimental impact on their international competitiveness.

Calls for the government to restart latent thermal capacity in the Kansai region, which could meet up to 83% of the Oi reactor’s capacity have also met with criticism from not just the government but also from many economists. Japan is an importer of fossil fuels, and any increase in their import would lead not just to higher electricity costs, but would also place severe strain on a nation already facing severe fiscal straits. These reasons have caused Prime Minister Noda to affirm that, in his judgment, the reactivation of nuclear reactors is essential for the protection of people’s livelihood in the nation.

Even though there has been a level of consensus reached around the restart of the nuclear reactors at Oi, with even the DPJ detractors of nuclear energy and the extremely popular anti-nuclear Mayor of Osaka agreeing that they need to be restarted to ensure the Kansai region ride through the summer, many are calling for a larger debate which should include the possibility of Japan ridding itself of any undue dependence on nuclear power.

Results from the Pew Center survey showing that 78% of Japanese are dissatisfied with the path chosen by their government are emboldening this opposition. Prime Minister Noda has promised that dependence on nuclear energy will be reduced to as little as possible, while maintaining that completely ridding itself of nuclear energy would be an extremely painful process for both Japan and its people. The concerns of regions like Hokkaido, which would face much larger shortages of power when demand for electric heating rises in the winter months, are also troubling the government.

The government needs to both give the newly announced nuclear regulatory body time to create the promised new regulations while also ensuring the people and industry do not suffer due to power shortage. The Fukushima Daiichi crisis, especially the revelation that the nexus of the "nuclear village" compromised the safety of the people, has caused a lot of fear and anger against nuclear energy in Japan. The Noda government is thus stuck in the sticky situation of having to walk the tight rope of adhering to the will of the people while also ensuring that the Japanese economy is not impacted negatively by his decisions. These decisions are only made harder for him by the dissent and politicking taking place within his own party.

(K.V. Kesavan is a Distinguished Fellow and Shoumik Bhattacharya a Research Intern at Observer Research Foundation)

1 Demand Calculated on assumption economy expands compared with last year and electricity-saving measures are carried out in hot weather mirroring 2010’s summer.

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K. V. Kesavan

K. V. Kesavan

K.V. Kesavan (1938 2021) was Visiting Distinguished Fellow at ORF. He was one of the leading Indian scholars in the field of Japanese studies. Professor ...

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