Editorial: “Review” of abandonment of nuclear power

Decision-making without soul-searching is risky

The new administration has said that it will review the policy of the previous administration of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) to abandon nuclear power in the 2030s. Toshimitsu Motegi, the new economy, trade and industry minister, made reference to this at the press conference launching the new administration.

He also said that “political decisions will be made” on the fate of nuclear power plants that are on the drawing board but not yet under construction. This includes the Chugoku Electric Power Company’s nuclear power plant in Kaminoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, and others that had come to be regarded as out of the question. This means that these projects could be approved in the future. There was no reference to this in the manifesto of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) during the House of Representatives election campaign.

A lot of voters must feel, “That wasn’t the deal.”

The plan to abandon nuclear power was set forth by the DPJ administration in the aftermath of the disaster at the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) nuclear power plant. It reflected the public’s desire to end Japan’s reliance on nuclear power. What lies behind this change in policy?

Consideration for industry was clearly a factor. The LDP’s basic principle of putting the economy first is evident. They believe that solar and other forms of renewable energy will not be enough to meet the nation’s demand for electricity and that it is cheaper to put the nuclear power plants back into operation than to supplement the nation’s energy supply by importing fossil fuels.

In that case the lessons of the Fukushima nuclear disaster will be completely ignored. It was previous LDP administrations that unquestioningly accepted the “myth of safety” and backed the construction of nuclear power plants all over the earthquake-prone Japanese archipelago.

The LDP foisted the risks of nuclear power plants on outlying regions, asserting that no accidents would occur. The “nuclear village,” with its back-scratching between the public and private sectors, ignored safety measures. This cozy set-up was brought into sharp relief by the disaster on March 11 of last year.

Surveys by the Nuclear Regulation Authority are revealing the existence of active faults on the premises of nuclear power plants. This has also exposed the flaws in the process by which policy-making was entrusted to the nuclear village in the past. At the same time, the central government bears a heavy responsibility for approving the plants without carrying out sufficient checks.

Presumably, the LDP has not forgotten the pain and suffering of the people of Fukushima Prefecture, whose hometowns have been contaminated by radiation and who live with constant worry about their health. The pleas of the people in the disaster area for an end to the use of nuclear power must be taken more seriously.

New Komeito, the LDP’s partner in the coalition government, had said it would seek the “swift” abandonment of nuclear power. So it must have been in agreement with the plan to reduce Japan’s reliance on nuclear power insofar as possible. The building of new nuclear power plants or the expansion of existing ones is clearly inconsistent with that policy and suggests discord within the administration.

Motegi expressed his intention to continue the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel and said, “Completely abandoning it is not an option.” He seems to be saying that because the abandonment of nuclear power is to be reviewed, the continuation of the nuclear fuel cycle is a matter of course.

The fact that Japan stores the surplus plutonium that results from its reprocessing of nuclear fuel is a source of considerable concern for the international community. There is no way to properly explain this either in Japan or abroad.

Why did the Fukushima disaster occur? The findings cannot have been summed up yet. And it is not clear how the LDP, as the ruling party, intends to reflect post-disaster soul-searching in the nation’s energy policy. We can’t help but feel something is wrong when, at this stage of the game, the minister in charge of the matter talks about expanding nuclear power plants or building new ones.

At the press conference launching his administration, when asked about his nuclear energy policy, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe merely repeated what the LDP’s manifesto said: that the administration would decide within three years whether or not to restart the nation’s nuclear power plants and would consider the best mix with renewable and other energy sources over the next 10 years. We hope the administration will at least do as they said and take plenty of time to carefully debate these issues.

(Originally published on December 28, 2012)