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Japan sticks with nuclear energy

One of Japan’s nuclear reactors has gone back online, ending the total shutdown that followed last year’s Fukushima disaster. It seems the growing anti-nuclear protest movement has not yet changed energy policy.

The recommissioning of the Number 3 unit at the Ohi nuclear power station in central Japan highlights the current difficulties surrounding Japanese energy policy. All 50 of the country's operational nuclear plants were shut down for maintenance in the months following the tsunami and nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima plant last year. Units 3 and 4 at Ohi have now been deemed sufficiently safe to go back online. However, the minister in charge has said that other nuclear plants will only get the go-ahead after the new Nuclear Regulatory Agency - which is no longer part of the Ministry of Economics, Trade and Industry - starts work later this summer.

The Ohi reactors are owned by the energy giant KEPCO, which supplies electricity to the region in and around the city of Osaka. The government of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda gave the green light for the restarting of the reactor in order to guarantee a relatively uninterrupted power supply during the critical summer months.

Growing opposition

Protesters take part in an anti-nuclear demonstration demanding a stop to the resumption of nuclear power operations in Tokyo July 1, 2012.

Anti-nuclear sentiment is growing slowly but surely

Opponents of the decision maintain that, in the event of a disaster, the existing infrastructure is dangerously inadequate. All across the country the evacuation zone has been extended from 10 to 30 kilometers (six to 19 miles). However, the authorities in the affected prefectures maintain that almost all the locations still lack essentials such as arterial roads, instruments to measure radiation exposure, and medical equipment.

Meanwhile, anti-nuclear feeling is growing among the general population. Noriyuki Wakisaka, a commentator in the daily newspaper Asahi Shimbun, estimates that 70 to 80 percent of the people oppose nuclear power. At the end of June tens of thousands protested in Tokyo in front of the Prime Minister's office against the recommissioning of the reactors.

"We now have a lot of citizens here who are enraged about the political decisions that are being made, but we don't have a party to focus this political mood. Discontent is growing, though. The protest movement is being led by the young, but it's non-ideological," Wakisaka told DW.

Three scenarios

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda listens to a reporter's question during a news conference at the Prime Minister's official residence in Tokyo Friday, June 8, 2012.

Prime Minister Noda is not seen as a supporter of energy transition

Wakisaka doesn't want to commit himself to a prognosis regarding the future direction of Japanese energy policy. He believes that, unlike his predecessor Naoto Kan, Noda is no champion of alternative energy but is more inclined to favor the interests of the energy concerns. This summer, the government will present the electricity generating companies with three scenarios covering the period to 2030. These will envisage different quantities of nuclear energy as a percentage of the national supply: firstly, complete withdrawal from the nuclear energy program, or alternatively programs including either 15 percent or 20-25 percent nuclear energy. These are intended to provoke a broad public debate before reaching a decision.

However, even 25 percent would already constitute a change of course. The Japan expert Marcus Tidten from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) cites the choice of words Japanese politicians are favoring. "The Japanese government talks not about withdrawing from the nuclear energy program, but of liberating the country from dependence on nuclear power." He estimates that in the medium term nuclear energy will account for around 20 percent of the country's energy supply. Before Fukushima, it was almost 33 percent.

Nationalization of TEPCO

Last week, as a result, the major Japanese energy concerns and the operators of the nuclear power plants rejected calls for a withdrawal from the nuclear industry. In the months when Japan's 50 nuclear power plants were offline, says Tidten, it became clear "that it costs vast amounts of money to introduce more fossil fuels just to keep industry running. It's a very expensive business."

Residents stand near a house collapsed by a strong earthquake in Kashiwazaki, northwestern Japan, Monday, July 16, 2007.

TEPCO wants to restart a reactor in earthquake-prone Kashiwazaki

The damage caused by the nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima has also been very expensive. The state has stepped in as majority shareholder in order to guarantee compensation for the tens of thousands of people displaced from the irradiated region, while also preventing the TEPCO energy concern that ran Fukushima from going bankrupt. To date around 25 billion euros in taxpayers' money have been poured into the company, the name of which will forever be connected with the disaster.

Laborious change

Japanexpert Tidten views the effective nationalization of TEPCO as being "also, to a certain extent, internal political appeasement." He believes it will facilitate the recommissioning of other nuclear reactors "if people know that this isn't some business conglomerate that just wants to make money, it's now my government that's doing this."

And TEPCO is determined to restart its reactors. Not in Fukushima, of course, but in the Kashiwakazi-Kariwa complex on the north-west coast, in an area which was hit by an earthquake in 2007. So although a new compensation rate of around 0.42 euros ($0.53) per kilowatt hour is being paid from 1 July for solar energy fed into the grid, the energy transition in the land of the rising sun will be a long and difficult process.

Author: Hans Spross / cc
Editor: Michael Lawton

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