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Post-Fukushima Nuclear Politics in Japan, Part I

- April 1, 2013

Fukushima nuclear power plant

(This post is co-authored with James Platte and Jennifer Sklarew.)

Despite statements from the reinvigorated Liberal Democratic party (LDP) and its leader Shinzo Abe that they will reconsider plans to move Japan away from nuclear energy, signs indicate that it is not business-as-usual for Japan’s nuclear sector.  Instead, the new and independent Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) has combined with empowered anti-nuclear groups in civil society and politics to change the nuclear power sector significantly.

With state support beginning in the immediate post war period under then Diet member Nakasone Yasuhiro, nuclear power has been the backbone of Japan’s energy policy and the perceived key to energy security for a country lacking domestic energy resources.  The Japanese government envisioned nuclear energy providing a consistent electricity supply through a closed nuclear fuel cycle employing reprocessing and fast breeder reactors that would generate “semi-national energy resources.”   Following the 1970s oil shocks, nuclear power became Japan’s base load power source, and the Japanese government committed to develop a closed nuclear fuel cycle despite technical problems.  The 2011 accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant seemed to change this trajectory.

In the ensuing months, all 54 of the commercial nuclear reactors operational before the Fukushima accident were shut down for safety inspections, and only two reactors at the Ohi Power Station in Fukui Prefecture have been allowed to restart since.  This situation has yielded concerns from the business community about power shortages during sweltering summers and long winters.  In addition, eight of the nine electric utilities operating nuclear power plants recorded losses in fiscal year 2011 with their nuclear plants lying dormant, and projections for fiscal year 2012 remain bleak.  Against this backdrop, five utility companies have requested permission to raise electricity rates.

Electric utilities have compensated for the loss of nuclear power capacity by increasing imports and use of fossil fuels, particularly liquid natural gas from Australia and Russia.  Energy conservation measures, some government mandated, have further helped.  These efforts have enabled Japan to survive the past two years, but the electric utilities and industry leaders do not see this trend as sustainable.

The Fukushima accident galvanized public sentiment against nuclear power and gave voice to anti-nuclear groups within the government and civil society.  Until the accident, the majority of the public supported the expansion of nuclear power, but following the fuel meltdowns, a Pew Research Center poll last summer found that 70 percent of the public supported reducing the use of nuclear power.  In September 2012, the then-ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) announced its intention to phase out nuclear power by the end of the 2030s, and the December 2012 Lower House elections saw the rise of several single-issue, anti-nuclear parties.  A number of communities close to nuclear power plants have expressed opposition to plant restarts, particularly those receiving little of the subsidies and grants provided from the central government and directly from utilities.

Until the Fukushima accident, anti-nuclear sentiments within the political parties and the public largely did not affect energy policymaking.  The March 11 disaster and ensuing shutdown of all reactors enabled nuclear opponents to voice their views as the Japanese government debated revisions to the existing energy policy.  The Fundamental Issues Subcommittee established in 2011 to formulate the new Strategic Energy Plan initially included two anti-nuclear members in a membership of 17.  Criticism from NGOs led to addition of eight more anti-nuclear representatives.  While the subcommittee has no voting power, it has highlighted debate over the pros and cons of nuclear power.  In March 2013, the LDP energy committee dropped six of its eight anti-nuclear members, suggesting  intentions to restart reactors soon.

The other break from Japan’s nuclear policy past is the NRA, created in September 2012.  The NRA is in the process of establishing new regulatory standards for nuclear power plants and will release the final standards by July.  Reactors must pass NRA safety inspections before restarting, and NRA Commissioner Shunichi Tanaka already has contested the LDP’s plan to make reactor restart decisions within three years.  The NRA likely will face strong pressure from the LDP and the nuclear industry to allow restarts.  How the NRA reacts to this pressure and enforces safety regulations will be a major factor in the future of Japan’s nuclear industry.

Almost exactly two years after the start of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) is set to begin formulating a new basic energy policy, including plans for the future of the country’s nuclear sector.  Considering the developments described above, it is clear that the reelection of the LDP will not likely lead simply to business-as-usual for Japan’s nuclear sector or energy policymaking.  We will explore these signs of change in Japan’s nuclear energy policy in two subsequent posts, starting with the NRA.