Academic journal article Asian Perspective

Nuclear Power Politics in Japan, 2011-2013

Academic journal article Asian Perspective

Nuclear Power Politics in Japan, 2011-2013

Article excerpt

Large antinuclear demonstrations in 2012 and significant expansion of renewable energy have sparked a degree of euphoria about the prospects for phasing out nuclear energy in Japan. But Prime Minister Abe Shinzo is pronuclear and favors restarting Japan's idled reactors. His Liberal Democratic Party now controls both houses of the Diet and is a key pillar of Japan's nuclear village, comprising influential government, business, and political institutions that advocate nuclear energy. The nuclear village retains veto power over national energy policy, and citizens will not get to decide the outcome even if public opinion polls indicate that a vast majority favor phasing out nuclear energy. By ignoring many of the lessons of Fukushima and fast-tracking reactor restarts, the government and utilities continue to downplay risk, leaving Japan vulnerable to another nuclear accident. KEYWORDS: Japan, nuclear, politics, energy, Abe Shinzo, Fukushima, TEPCO, Nuclear Regulation Authority.

THE FUKUSHIMA NUCLEAR ACCIDENT SPURRED EXPECTATIONS IN THE Japanese public and around the world that Japan would phase out nuclear energy. Indeed, in July 2011 Prime Minister Kan Naoto announced that he no longer believed that nuclear reactors could be operated safely in Japan because it is so prone to devastating earthquakes and tsunamis; by May 2012 all of Japan's fifty viable reactors were shut down for safety inspections. Plans to boost nuclear energy to 50 percent of Japan's electricity generating capacity were scrapped, and in 2012 the government introduced subsidies to boost renewable energy. Remarkably, an aroused public took to the streets in the largest display of activism since the turbulent 1960s. This summer of discontent featured numerous demonstrations involving hundreds of thousands of antinuclear protesters. Moreover, public opinion polls in 2012 and 2013 indicate that some 70 percent of Japanese want to phase out nuclear energy by 2030.

The government went through the motions of consulting public opinion in August 2012, finding that 81 percent of those it surveyed came up with the "wrong" answer, favoring the zero nuclear option by 2030. Ironically, the government then held seminars to educate selected citizens about the pros and cons of nuclear energy, hoping that this would produce a better result. But the before-and-after surveys reveal that the more people know about nuclear energy, the less likely they are to support it. The public was never going to have the final say on something as important as national energy strategy, however, and the so-called nuclear village-pronuclear advocates in the bureaucracy, Diet, business community, utilities, vendors, and lenders-has intervened to save the people from their own misguided views on the dangers of nuclear energy.

Reverse Course

As I argued in a lengthy analysis of Japan's nuclear village, the deck is stacked in favor of the pronuclear advocates of the nuclear village, and public opposition will not trump the networks of power defending nuclear energy (Kingston 2012b). But the speed and extent of the nuclear village's revanchism has been stunning.

The marginalization of public opinion is evident in three significant policy developments during the final months of the Democratic Party of Japan's rule (2009-2012). First, on September 14, 2012, the Yoshihiko Noda cabinet appeared to endorse a gradual phaseout of nuclear power by the late 2030s. But within days it quickly disavowed this plan under heavy pressure from business lobby groups (Asahi 9/19/2012; Asahi 10/4/2012; Japan Times 10/6/12). It did not officially endorse a new national energy plan, explaining that any decision on energy policy would be subject to ongoing review in light of future developments. Noda expressed the ambiguity as follows: "We need a strategy with both a firm direction and the flexibility to respond to circumstances; while its base line will not waver, it will not restrict future policy excessively. …

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