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Restarting the Nuclear Reactor Restart Battle

Amari FCCJ

Akira Amari (SNA)

SNA (Tokyo) — The results of Sunday’s House of Councillors election are a foregone conclusion in light of the electoral district system and the number of candidates run by each party. The ruling coalition of the LDP and New Komeito will win a strong majority in the upper house but cannot possibly win on their own the 2/3 majority required for constitutional revision. What we will have when the Diet next opens will be the Abe government popular with the public and in firm control of the parliament. They will have months ahead in which Prime Minister Abe will be in control of his own destiny and free to expend some of his political capital on projects that are not necessarily very popular. Most legislation should glide through the Diet.

There are probably only a few issues where the prime minister will still need to tread carefully and cannot expect an automatic victory. The most difficult of these matters is revision of the Constitution, which will quite possibly still be out of reach for Abe. Related to this are various issues surrounding his militarization policies, which could create a split with New Komeito. The Trans-Pacific Partnership issue could potentially provoke a rebellion within the LDP itself if it is badly mishandled. Forceful construction of the US Marine air base at Henoko could have unpredictable consequences when the local people resist. And, finally, the LDP’s enthusiasm for nuclear power will be opposed in a variety of forums by the anti-nuclear forces. It is on this last matter that we will focus here.

The Abe administration’s desire to switch on the nation’s idle nuclear reactors as quickly as possible is hardly in doubt. The prime minister himself has said as much. The government is pushing for the independent Nuclear Regulation Authority to inspect nuclear reactors under the new, tougher safety regulations as rapidly as can be done, and then get on with the actual restarts.

The LDP were the architects of the “nuclear village” and have never shown any particular remorse for setting the stage for the Fukushima disaster. Akira Amari, the minister of economic revitalization who is now pushing hard for reactor restarts, is the very same man who as Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry in 2006 pushed for nuclear power’s contribution to Japan’s energy portfolio to be raised from the then-30% to a future 50% level. If he felt any guilt or pangs of conscience over the nuclear disaster that occurred five years later, there’s never been any public indication of it.

“Fukushima” has indeed become little more than a part of the Abe administration’s pro-nuclear sales pitch. Whereas before 3.11 Japan’s nuclear salesmen would advertise themselves as bringing “the world’s safest nuclear power” to the Persian Gulf and elsewhere; nowadays the pitch has been slightly modified as follows: “We have a responsibility to take the lessons we learned at Fukushima to help other nations enhance their own nuclear safety. Why? Because in the wake of Fukushima we have developed the world’s safest nuclear power.”

Most of the Japanese public still isn’t buying it. The most recent Jiji Press poll, for example, found that 49.7% oppose Prime Minister Abe’s plan to restart nuclear reactors and only 41.1% support the plan.

Still, with less than half of the Japanese public decidedly opposed to nuclear restarts, the government probably feels safe enough in trying to muscle it though.

But again we are likely to see a rather messy political battle emerge like the one that helped sap the strength of the Noda administration last summer. Recall that Noda himself took responsibility for switching back on two reactors at the Oi Nuclear Power Plant in Fukui Prefecture leading to local political struggles across the nation and mass protests in front of the Kantei. Pro-nuclear moves by the Abe administration could very well galvanize the anti-nuclear movement once again and lead to a similar scenario. But it’s also possible that both sides may act with less restraint this time, leading to who-knows-what kinds of incidents.

From May 5 to July 1 of last year, Japan had no nuclear reactors operating for the first time in many decades. We know that this situation will reoccur in this coming September when the two reactors at Oi which have been operating continuously since last July must be shut down for regular inspections. All of the other twelve nuclear reactors that the power companies have so far asked be approved for restarts will not be authorized until about December at the earliest. So a second brief “non-nuclear era” is definitely coming a couple of months from now.

But in early 2014, no doubt, the Abe administration will push for reactor after reactor to be turned back on and we’ll see how effective or otherwise the anti-nuclear movement will be in slowing or stopping this process.

A bit of a prelude to the battle is currently being waged in Niigata Prefecture.

Niigata is home to the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant, which is TEPCO’s jewel in the crown; the largest nuclear plant in the world by electricity generation capacity with no less than seven modern reactors.

Needless to say, TEPCO badly wants to switch these reactors back on and to return to normal business. But they are haunted by more than the Fukushima Daiichi disaster alone; in 2007 a major earthquake hit about 25 kilometers from the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant causing enough damage that the reactors had to remain idle for 21 months.

Giving voice to local concerns is Niigata Governor Hirohiko Izumida, who is ironically an alumnus of the nuclear energy promoting Ministry of International Trade and Industry himself. When TEPCO President Naomi Hirose indicated his intention to apply for a restart of Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors on the very first day that the Nuclear Regulation Authority began receiving applications, Governor Izumida blasted TEPCO saying that they had “destroyed the trust of the local community.”

Izumida pointed out that TEPCO executives had yet to make any presentation to the local community in advance of stating their intention to apply to the central government to permit restarts and that TEPCO seemed to learn little or nothing about how anxious local communities in Japan truly are about hosting nuclear power plants. Governor Izumida sent out a warning to everyone that there was more to getting acceptance of nuclear restarts than simply having the Nuclear Regulation Authority sign off on it.

An interesting response came from Minister Akira Amari, revealing once again just how ideologically committed this man is to nuclear power. He jumped into the fray on July 9 saying that Governor Izumida apparently “misunderstood” the concept of nuclear safety. The governor hit back at Amari almost immediately, saying that what was misunderstood was the depth of the concerns of the local community.

That’s basically where the matter still stands today: TEPCO wisely backed off immediately applying for a restart of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors, Governor Izumida left on a previously scheduled international trip to New York and Sao Paulo, and Minister Amari has been busy with election campaigning. But Izumida and Amari will probably meet face-to-face within the next week or so.

One thing that is clear is that both the pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear forces in Japan are set to continue their political clash in the months and even years ahead.

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