Editorial: Working together to review the nation’s energy policy

In the aftermath of the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) nuclear power plant, what road map should be made to move toward ending Japan’s reliance on nuclear power? Discussions involving a review of the nation’s energy policy have begun within the Advisory Committee for Natural Resources and Energy, an advisory panel of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

By next summer, once the committee presents its report, the national government will reach a decision regarding Japan’s essential policy on energy strategies and issue a new basic plan.

In the previous plan, which was compiled before the great earthquake and tsunami struck the country in March, the aim was to have 14 or more new nuclear power plants constructed by the year 2030 and the proportion of nuclear power would increase to 53 percent of the nation’s total power generation. But this plan has been suspended. Soon after assuming office, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda indicated his support for abandoning the use of nuclear power in Japan.

To this point, Japan has singlemindedly promoted the use of nuclear power as a national policy. The nation has neither adequately responded to criticism of its nuclear practices nor prepared for potential emergencies. The result is the catastrophe we are now experiencing.

In this sense, it is commendable that one-third of the members on the committee, charged with conducting substantive discussion, are regarded as proponents of breaking away from the use of nuclear power. We hope the committee’s proposals will be cool-headed and convincing, and include a financial assessment of nuclear power generation as well as the costs involved in decommissioning reactors.

There is a problem, though, in that three different bodies within the government are now discussing the nation’s future energy policy.

The Energy and Environmental Council, which is composed of cabinet members and is under the jurisdiction of the National Policy Unit, is discussing the general direction of the energy policy, including the status of power companies. The Japan Atomic Energy Commission, under the jurisdiction of the Cabinet Office, has launched a review of the Framework for Nuclear Energy Policy.

Relations among these groups, which fall under different jurisdictions, are unclear and they appear to be at odds with one another. At yesterday’s meeting of the House of Representatives Special Committee on Reconstruction from the Great East Japan Earthquake, voices were raised questioning the consistency of this policy making process.

In the first place, Prime Minister Noda has not displayed a definite position when it comes to nuclear power. In an interview with a U.S. newspaper, he said that he aims to resume operations at the nation’s nuclear facilities by next summer. Then, at a meeting of the United Nations general assembly, he made a speech to the effect that Japan will seek to continue exporting nuclear energy technology.

Over and over the prime minister and other ministers have said that viewing nuclear power as a dichotomy between “zero nuclear power” and the “promotion of nuclear power” is unproductive. What, then, is the course beyond this dichotomy? The essential direction of such a course must be clearly spelled out.

The Energy and Environmental Council released an interim compilation of discussion points in July, which included the decision that denuclearizing the nation’s energy sources should be the fundamental principle of any new policy and that dependence on nuclear power should be phased down. This decision should form the basis for future discussion within the government.

Numerical targets, however, have not yet been shown. Next spring, the council will present options to the public involving the optimal mix of nuclear, thermal, and renewable energy sources.

That will be the time the Advisory Committee for Natural Resources and Energy is seeking consensus. The concerned bodies must fulfill their functions while keeping in step with one another.

The accident at the nuclear plant in Fukushima has not simply stirred the issue of determining Japan’s energy sources. It has also raised a serious question about our own indifference to the nation’s energy policy, which has a significant impact on people’s lives and business activities.

In response to public opinion and a thorough debate within an ethics committee, Germany has altered its policy and is now abandoning nuclear power. A referendum held in Italy saw voters reject nuclear power. Japan should also devise a method for seeking public opinion and such views should be reflected in the nation’s policies.

(Originally published on October 6, 2011)