Japan's new government has no plans for a switch-off of nuclear power. However, stringent security regulations and public opinion mean any radical rebirth of the country's atomic industry seems unlikely.
The gap between supporters and opponents of nuclear power has widened since recent parliamentary elections in December.
"No restart for reactors" and "Against nuclear power" was the battle cry of some 1,000 people outside the office of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo. According to organizers of the "Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes," it was the 37th Friday demonstration since spring. However, the prospect of success for the protesters is growing ever-more distant.
New Prime Minister Abe is a clear proponent of the nuclear energy. After taking office, he even announced the construction of new reactors. His Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is Japan's main party in support of nuclear power.
For decades, the LDP has believed in a solid triangle of bureaucracy, industry and academia, which has never questioned the safety of nuclear power and nuclear reactors.
This so-called "nuclear village" also prevented the necessary precautions being implemented that would have safeguarded the nuclear facility in Fukushima against a tsunami.
New Premier Abe praised the clean-up workers for their efforts during his visit to the dilapidated plant. "Your courage is the great hope and the future," he said. And the challenge is not over. It is the first time in history that mankind faces such an enormous clean-up task. The success of this would "lead to the rebuilding of Fukushima and of Japan," said Abe.
He also added that a nuclear switch-off was something that would not be achieved by wishful thinking alone.
No long-term decisions
Abe's industry and economics minister, Toshimitsu Motegi, was even clearer. "We have still not decided on the policy of a nuclear shutdown as far as the 2030s," said Motegi, whose ministry is responsible for energy policy.
Within three years - should the country's Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) give necessary safety approval - 48 nuclear reactors that were shut down are due to come back on line.
However, the landscape of the nuclear village has changed. Previously, decision makers agreed on policies behind the scenes. This is no longer the case. The new NRA chairman, Shunichi Tanaka, even contradicted Motegi on the same day. He said it would not be possible to get the security standards of all reactors up to standard within three years. Tanaka did not even think it was necessary to share these ideas with the prime minister himself but rather did so in an interview with the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun.
Ultimately, the nuclear policy of the new government will differ little from that of the previous government. The last cabinet and Prime Minster Yoshihiko Noda had proposed as a goal that nuclear power should be phased out within 30 years, although no concrete measures had been implemented. Despite this, the Noda government approved the further construction of two reactors, which had been put on hold immediately after the meltdown in Fukushima. His government also approved the recommissioning of a reprocessing plant for spent fuel rods.
Profitability is a tall order
Neither Abe nor Motegi have so far commented on whether they would limit the life cycle of reactors to 40 years, as had been decided upon but not grounded in law by the previous government. There has also been no statement from the new government to explain whether or not they will dismantle the monopolies of current regional electricity providers. More competition and higher costs due to more stringent safety requirements could render the construction of new plants non-profitable.
During the election campaign, Abe expressed the opinion that Japan could not afford the nuclear shutdown for purely economic purposes. However, staying with nuclear power could also cost the country dearly. "I want a responsible energy policy," he said, even after his visit to Fukushima.
He said the government's policy was to expand into alternative energy as mush as possible in the next three years.
Abe also promised that the government would decide upon the right energy mix in 10 years' time. For now, the comeback of the nuclear village as it existed before seems unlikely.