Japan's Nuclear Muddle

January 10, 2013 Topic: Energy Region: Japan

Japan's Nuclear Muddle

The recent elections didn't address the island nation's energy crisis.

Japanese nuclear workers.Japan’s December election put an end to the brief rule of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). It also handed an overwhelming victory and lower house majority to Japan’s traditional political leaders, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). However, still lacking a majority in the upper house, the LDP’s ability to push through legislation is dependent on its alliance with New Komeito, a party with significant policy differences on some of the immediate questions facing the LDP. Between now and the next scheduled elections for Japan’s upper house in July 2013, the LDP’s first priority will be posturing for an upper house majority in the next election, not taking hard stands on controversial policy issues. One such issue concerns the country’s heated debate on nuclear energy.

Since the meltdowns at Fukushima, triggered by the earthquake and tsunamis of March 2011, several fundamental nuclear-policy questions await answers—answers that could have significant consequences for the communities hosting Japan’s nuclear facilities, broader Japanese society and, to some extent, the global nuclear order. Beyond Japan’s two operating reactors, how many more of Japan’s fifty viable reactors will be allowed to restart? Will Japan continue its current effort to close the nuclear fuel cycle? What is the future for the industry’s fuel-cycle facilities in Aomori Prefecture and the nuclear materials currently stored there and at reactor sites around the country?

When last heard from on nuclear policy, the DPJ waffled, sending thoroughly confused signals. The Noda administration appeared poised to formalize a commitment to phasing out nuclear power by 2030, but ultimately backed away, stating the target as aspirational rather than binding. The administration’s energy ministry then promptly contradicted this target by authorizing resumption of reactor construction at the Oma plant in Aomori Prefecture, a plant that will thence be operational long after 2030. Clearly under political pressure, the Noda administration was stuck between strong nuclear opposition and a reluctance to fully walk away from Japan’s reactors—this hesitation has been blamed, somewhat dubiously, on the U.S. government, while evidence suggests that it is the Japanese business community that applied the pressure.

According to opinion surveys, nuclear energy continues to be deeply unpopular in Japan, with opposition remaining well above 70 percent. Protests continue against reactivation of nuclear power plants, with sizable crowds assembling every Friday in front of the prime minister’s residence. Antinuclear sentiment remains palpable across the country on t-shirts, Facebook pages, and magazine covers.

But despite opposition to nuclear power, during the election only one of the parties within Japan’s top political tiers, the Tomorrow Party of Japan (Mirai), ran on a promise to abolish nuclear power. Mirai was trounced, going into the election with sixty-two seats, and emerging with only nine. In contrast, the Japan Restoration Party (Ishin no Kai), which in six months has flipped from staunch nuclear opponent to moderate advocate, felt comfortable enough to campaign against Mirai’s “irresponsible” stance on nuclear. On election day, Ishin no Kai increased their numbers from eleven to fifty-four.

The election has led to optimism in pro-nuclear quarters about a break in the post-Fukushima nuclear-policy deadlock. For its part, the LDP campaigned on an outwardly moderate stance on nuclear—waiting three years before making any major decisions. The policy has inherent merit in allowing more time for Japan’s nascent nuclear regulatory system to get its bearings, but it also quietly benefits nuclear while distracting from the LDP’s traditional pro-nuclear bias. Punting major nuclear-policy decisions down the road allows time for post-Fukushima opposition to fade, promising a more favorable environment for any long-term policy decisions. It also conveniently sets the issue far enough beyond the next election that the LDP can avoid dealing too directly with the subject between now and July.

But pro-nuclear optimism is probably hasty. While there is no question that the election results were a defeat for Japan’s nuclear opponents, as Robert Pekkanen argues, it would be wrong to interpret the results as a popular endorsement of the LDP and its platform. Furthermore, it is worth remembering that, at least for the next six months, nuclear’s opponents seem to hold the stronger hand. Japan’s debate on national nuclear policy currently centers on a question of a nuclear “phase-out,” but with only two of fifty viable reactors currently operating, the phase-out has already happened. The prescient concern would be a nuclear phase-in, and if the past year’s furious political battle over restarting the two reactors at the Oi plant is any indication, a phase-in of Japan’s shuttered reactors is no foregone conclusion.

With the next election on the horizon, there is scant chance that the LDP will fight the battle to begin restarting nuclear reactors before July. Nor is it likely to take the risk of making significant decisions on long-term nuclear policy in an environment that polls suggest remains hostile to nuclear power.

Beyond six months could be a different matter. There is a possibility that the LDP will win a majority in the upper house, consolidating its gains and earning the ability to enact its own legislative priorities. At that point, one could expect to see movement on Japan’s nuclear-policy questions, possibly leading to reactor restart campaigns and clarity for Japan’s fuel-cycle programs and nuclear materials.

But for that to happen the LDP needs to buck the trend of Japan’s recent electoral cycles, invert its anemic popularity ratings, and consolidate its gains into full control of Japan’s government. If it fails to do this before July’s election, Japan will likely find itself no closer to answers on nuclear policy than it was before December’s election.

Ryan Shaffer is associate director of programs at the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation in Washington, DC, and program director for the US–Japan Nuclear Working Group.

Image: Flickr/Surian Soosay. CC BY 2.0.