Editorial: Nuclear power policy

Further debate on shutdowns needed

The resumption of operations at nuclear power plants seems to be proceeding with little debate. We continue to save electricity, but what for? Many people must be worried and leery about where Japan’s nuclear power and energy policy is headed.

Nevertheless there has been little debate on this issue in the campaign for the House of Councillors election. The verbal battles waged by the parties continue to run right past the issues that interest the public.

Rather than plunging ahead with the resumption of operations at nuclear power plants, let’s recall the accident in Fukushima and start afresh. The safety and peace of mind of Japan’s people is the top priority, and for that reason the only option is to reduce Japan’s reliance on nuclear power.

From that standpoint, the campaign pledges of the parties fall short.

Take the Liberal Democratic Party. In the House of Representatives election at the end of last year, the LDP stated it would work to bring about an economy and a society in which there was no need to rely on nuclear power. But the party has changed its tune and now says, “We will do our utmost to gain the understanding of local municipalities with regard to the resumption of operations.”

We understand there is concern that it may throw cold water on the economy if electric rates go up further in conjunction with the shutdown of the nuclear power plants. But even so, no long-term perspective on energy policy is apparent.

It was just last year, during the administration of the Democratic Party of Japan, that a deliberative opinion poll conducted by the government found that the majority of the public hoped to have a society that was not reliant on nuclear power.

But the administration of the LDP has continued to hammer out policies as if to return to the days before the disaster, with no national debate on the issue. This suggests that the administration intends to stay the course in terms of the nuclear fuel cycle as well as the effort to restart the nuclear power plants. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe continues to sell Japan’s nuclear technology overseas also.

Meanwhile, Komeito, one of the parties in the ruling coalition, and seven other parties, except the LDP, have pledged to work to eliminate Japan’s nuclear power plants.

But they are divided on the issue of resuming operations. There is undeniably a sense that overall the specific strategies on how to maximize the use of renewable energy while limiting the impact on people’s lives and the economy as much as possible are rather vague.

It is no longer acceptable to keep putting off the debate on shutting down the nuclear power plants. It won’t do for the ruling or the opposition parties to forget about that.

It is certain that under the new regulatory standards for nuclear power plants, which took effect this month, the reactors at many plants will be subject to decommissioning. So, who will make the final decision on decommissioning? Will it go smoothly if the processes and costs are left up to the electric power companies alone? If no specific mechanism is created, the public’s concerns cannot be dispelled.

With regard to the nuclear fuel cycle as well, the current impasse is clear. In terms of the prevention of nuclear proliferation, Japan will come under a lot of criticism from the international community for continuing to stockpile plutonium, which can be used for nuclear weapons, while having no way to use it up.

If these issues, including the disposal of spent nuclear fuel, or radioactive waste, are not debated now, future generations simply won’t accept it.

There are still points that need to be debated.

A revision of the Electric Utilities Industry Law was drafted that would have changed the system under which local power companies hold monopolies. But, as a result of a conflict between the ruling and opposition parties, it was scrapped in the recent ordinary session of the Diet. Prime Minister Abe has said he would like to pass the bill during the extraordinary Diet session in the fall, but the electric power industry remains strongly opposed.

Two years and four months have passed since the accident at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima. A return to normal is a long way off, and radioactive materials are still being released. Are the political parties debating the issues in a way that is supportive of those victims who cannot return to their homes? They need to get back to focusing on what is really important.

(Originally published on July 16, 2013)