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New policies

Julian Ryall, TokyoDecember 27, 2012

One of the first policy victims of Japan's incoming Liberal Democratic Party is likely to be the commitment to phasing out nuclear power. The promise made after Fukushima does not sit well with the pro-business party.

Ohi nuclear power plant is seen after its No. 3 rector, right, returned to operation in Ohi town, Fukui prefecture, western Japan, Sunday, July 1, 2012. (Photo:Kyodo News/AP/dapd)
Image: ap

As the country nears the two-year anniversary of the second-worst nuclear accident in history, the protests continue every Friday night outside the official residence of the prime minister of Japan. The demonstrations are very Japanese in their nature; more colorful than confrontational and polite instead of provocative.

But it seems likely that these people, drawn from all walks of life in this post-nuclear disaster nation, are to be disappointed in their campaign to have the government adhere to its predecessor's promise to do away with Japan's reliance on nuclear energy by the latter half of the 2030s.

Even in the run-up to the nation's general election on December 16, the LDP was making its intention to re-evaluate the promises made in the wake of the disaster known. And four days after the vote, as Prime Minister-elect Shinzo Abe was still putting together his cabinet, additional pressure was heaped upon a party that has in the past come in for criticism for having relationships with big business that some see as being just a little too cozy.

Japan's newly-elected Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stands as he was chosen as new prime minister at the Lower House of Parliament in Tokyo December 26, 2012. (Photo: REUTERS/Toru Hanai)
Shinzo Abe became the country's new prime minister on December 26Image: Reuters

"We would like a realistic energy policy that is unwavering and made from a long-term perspective," Makoto Yagi, the president of Kansai Electric Power Co., told reporters in Osaka.

One of the nation's largest regional utility firms, providing energy to the industrialized region around Japan's second-largest city, Kansai Electric is also one of the power firms that is most reliant on nuclear energy to meet the needs of its customers.

Blackout fears

In the months after the nation's nuclear power plants were switched off after the Fukushima disaster, there was acute concern in Osaka that the city would suffer rolling blackouts during the peak demand period over the summer. That was narrowly averted, but the issue arose again during one of the hottest summers on record in Japan this year.

Yagi, who also serves as chairman of the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan, accused the outgoing administration of Yoshihiko Noda of being inconsistent and confused in its plans for replacing nuclear power with renewable energy, including wind, wave, geothermal and solar energy.

"There are too many issues" that needed to be resolved, Yagi said.

"The energy strategy that plans to halt all nuclear reactors by the 2030s poses a challenge that is too excessive," he added. "We ask the new administration to review it."

An anti-nuclear protester holds a flag reading: "No Nukes" during a demonstration in Tokyo July 29, 2012. (Photo: REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao)
The previous government was put under pressure to actImage: Reuters

At present, only two of the 50 commercial reactors in Japan are operating. Those two reactors, at the Oi nuclear plane in Fukui Prefecture, central Japan, were reactivated in July in spite of concerns expressed by local residents and seismologists who have radically rethought the danger posed to the nation's nuclear facilities by natural disasters.

The nuclear industry, on the other hand, was delighted and has pointed out in the intervening months that the two reactors have been operating without a hitch.

Mr. Abe officially became prime minister on December 26 and named his new cabinet, giving Toshimitsu Motegi the portfolio of minister of economy, trade and industry, which is also tasked with overseeing the nuclear industry.

Rethinking power policy

Mr. Motegi wasted no time in indicating where the administration's priorities lie, telling a news conference later in the day that the promise to phase out nuclear power needs to be reviewed.

"In our party pledges, we have said that we will establish the best energy mix that is also sustainable within 10 years," he said. "The earlier [a decision is made] the better, but it may be a little too early to decide at this stage what the proportion of renewable energy or fossil-fuel energy should be."

Mr. Abe has himself tried to allay the fears of a public that is still struggling to come to terms with the enormity of last year's nuclear disaster, telling his very first press conference as prime minister that he will demand that the national nuclear regulatory body draws up "strict" safety regulations to be applied at Japan's atomic energy facilities.

In this March 11, 2011, photo release Thursday, May 19 by Tokyo Electric Power Co. waves of tsunami come toward tanks of heavy oil for the Unit 5 of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, northeastern Japan. (ddp images/AP Photo/Tokyo Electric Power Co.)
The March 11 earthquake and ensuing tsunami triggered a great disaster in FukushimaImage: AP

But a party that has relied heavily on the largesse of big business to win back power after three years in opposition may find it hard to resist the demands of those firms. The LDP, for instance, is very aware that it won the election as a result of the electorate voting against the former administration rather than massively in favor of its new policies - including on the issue of nuclear power.

In early December, the Nuclear Regulation Authority announced that an active seismic fault line runs directly beneath the Tsuruga nuclear plant, operated by Japan Atomic Power Co. in Fukui Prefecture. By law, if the fault is confirmed to be active, the company will be required to decommission the facility.

In a statement, Japan Atomic Power contested the regulator's findings and said the results of the survey were "totally unacceptable."

The company said it would have an independent investigation conducted into the seismic stability of the area.