Nuclear Issue in Limbo as Indecision Grips Japan

ENERGY, 17 Feb 2014

Martin Fackler – International New York Times

Several industrialized countries have turned their backs on nuclear power as a result of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, including one that has already begun permanently shutting functioning plants. That country is not Japan.

“Germany chose to get rid of nuclear power because of Fukushima, while the United States is still in favor, but what about Japan, where the accident took place?” said Jun Tateno, who has written several books on nuclear power. “We still have not had a proper public debate about the most fundamental question: Do we want nuclear power’s low-cost electricity for growth, or do we want a safer, nuclear-free society?”

Many analysts had hoped that last Sunday’s vote to choose the next governor of Tokyo would provide just such a forum to that question, which lies at the heart of Japan’s struggle to find its economic footing after two decades of malaise. But the results of the contest — which included an impassioned though unsuccessful run by two antinuclear candidates, including a former prime minister — were unclear at best.

The current prime minister, Shinzo Abe, appeared emboldened by the results, saying a day after the election that he would soon release a “realistic and balanced” energy strategy, which analysts took as meaning one that would call for restarting at least some idled nuclear plants. But some analysts warned that Mr. Abe could still face a public backlash if he is seen as rushing to return Japan to its pre-accident status quo, especially if he fails to convince enough voters that the plants can be made safe.

“The no-nukes candidates lost, but that doesn’t mean there is suddenly a consensus in favor of nuclear power,” said Shiro Asano, a retired professor of politics at Keio University.

The election, in fact, appears to encapsulate the indecisiveness that has kept Japan paralyzed for nearly three years, since the triple meltdowns. After decades of marching forward in the belief that the resource-poor country needed cheap nuclear power to compete economically, Japan is no longer able to muster a new national consensus on it.

At root, analysts say, is the deeper angst of a nation still grappling with the question raised by the disaster: Are the majority of Japanese who appear afraid to turn the plants back on willing to enter an uncharted, nuclear-free future that might consign their country to decades of lower growth? That question has taken on new urgency as a rising China is challenging Japan’s influence in the region.

Voters continue to send mixed signals, electing Mr. Abe, who has called the low-cost electricity from nuclear power a vital part of his popular Abenomics strategy to revive growth even as polls continue to show an ambivalence about atomic energy. Voters have chosen Mr. Abe’s pro-nuclear governing party in national elections, but then oppose an immediate restart of the plants in opinion polls.

That fuzzy message has left this consensus-driven country without a way forward, even as its once vaunted trade surplus has turned to a deficit, with soaring bills for fossil fuels to make up for the lost nuclear power.

For the moment, many Japanese have compensated for higher electricity costs by embracing conservation efforts.

And as was true even in the depths of the economic downturn, life for many Japanese remains relatively comfortable. The subways run like clockwork, the country is safer than many in the world and the economy is still the world’s third largest.

While there have been warnings of companies being driven overseas by high energy costs, so far the costs have at least partly been offset by an upturn in profits under Abenomics’s lower-yen, growth-promoting policies, economists say.

“People cannot feel the economic damage now because of the overall lift from Abenomics,” said Koji Nomura, an economics professor at Keio University in Tokyo. “But this is a bill that will come due.”

The prime minister and his allies in the business community have argued as much, saying that the idling of the nation’s 48 operable reactors since the accident three years ago threatens Abenomics by forcing Japan to import an extra $36 billion worth of natural gas and other fuel every year.

But even Mr. Abe has been unwilling to force the point by turning the plants on, while a new regulatory agency has appeared reluctant to risk a public backlash by declaring reactors safe to operate. The watchdog was expected to make its first ruling last month on whether reactors meet new safety standards set in July, but a decision is now not expected until spring at the earliest.

Popular fears of nuclear power have not been helped by the continuing problems that plague the cleanup at the Fukushima plant, and continued instances of the utility in charge hiding bad news, despite promises that it would change.

“I don’t know which way to go,” confessed Hajime Morikawa, 35, a temporary office worker who had come out to hear one of the antinuclear advocates before the election. “I hope this becomes a step toward a nuclear-free future, but I don’t see how we can just turn the nuclear plants off.”

That type of sentiment helps explain the mixed messages of last weekend’s election.

While the candidate from the governing, pro-nuclear power party prevailed, analysts say he did so in part by distancing himself from its stance with vague expressions of support for a gradual phaseout of nuclear energy.

The two candidates who called for immediately scrapping all atomic power plants also fared better than the results seemed to suggest, winning a combined 1.9 million votes, just 200,000 shy of the victor’s tally. And the only avowedly pro-nuclear candidate of any stature, a former general, placed a distant fourth.

At the same time, analysts said, Tokyo’s voters proved unconvinced by the lofty vision articulated by the high-profile antinuclear candidate, former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, and another retired prime minister, the popular Junichiro Koizumi, who campaigned at his side. In campaign speeches, the two men, both patrons of the nuclear industry turned apostates by the accident, spoke urgently of the need for Japan to discard nuclear power and become a pioneer in safer, renewable energies they say could drive an economic resurgence.

But many analysts said the victory of the governing party candidate signaled that many voters found the appeals of Mr. Hosokawa and Mr. Koizumi unrealistic.

As a sign of the depth of the internal conflict, fissures have begun to appear even in Japan’s once solidly pro-nuclear business world. While the powerful Keidanren lobbying group representing Japan’s business establishment still remains a vocal supporter of restarting nuclear plants, many younger companies have turned against it.

Rifts have also appeared within Mr. Abe’s governing party, where a group of about 50 mostly younger lawmakers have staged a revolt against Mr. Abe’s unabashedly pro-nuclear stance.

But the public has also appeared to lose interest in weekly antinuclear street protests in front of the prime minister’s residence in Tokyo, where the number of people has dropped to a few hundred from tens of thousands two years ago.

Some analysts say that in the end, they expect Japan to reject both the desire to go back to the pre-accident embrace of nuclear power, and idealistic calls to take more of a chance with the future. Instead, they say, they expect Japan to go back to the compromise position of a previous government that Mr. Abe scrapped when he took power: allowing the restart of the newest plants in exchange for promises that Japan will eventually shed nuclear power as realistic alternatives are developed.

“Neither Abe nor Hosokawa is at the center of public opinion,” said Takeo Kikkawa, an expert on the energy industry at Tokyo’s Hitotsubashi University. “A gradual phaseout remains the best answer for solving the nuclear problem while preserving growth.”

Correction: February 11, 2014

An earlier version of this article incorrectly described Shiro Asano as a professor at Keio University. He is retired.


Hisako Ueno contributed reporting.

A version of this article appears in print on February 12, 2014, on page A4 of the New York edition with the headline: Nuclear Issue in Limbo as Indecision Grips Japan.

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