Japan’s critical energy juncture: is Tokyo ready to make its move?


Anti-nuclear protest in Nakano, Tokyo

This editorial was originally penned for publishing in Japan Today’s “Insight” Magazine and the Japan Today Opinion section, but PM Noda’s reported decision to go anti-nuclear by 2030 means I’m putting up a rewrite for next week. So, lo and behold, here it is, exclusive to thejapanshow.com

John

 

The landscape of Japanese politics when it comes to nuclear policy has been leveled since last year’s disaster. A largely popular proposal designed to send nuclear power’s share of energy provision up past fifty percent now looks like one of the most gung-ho ideas of the past decade. Government and utility spokespeople, including Prime Minister Noda, continue to push the claim that as long as nuclear power exists in Japan, it will be made as safe as can be reasonably expected. Unfortunately, an underlying apathy towards politics amplified by a blunder-filled disaster response has kept a large portion of the populace skeptical of the party line. Confirmation by a recent government-level investigative panel that information was widely suppressed in the aftermath of Fukushima only adds to the mistrust of “the man.” Being blamed for a lack of safety protocols at nuclear plants, TEPCO and by extension other utilities have little reputation in the eyes of the people. Major broadcasters keeping quiet on anti-nuclear or anti-utility talk immediately post-disaster for fear of losing valuable sponsorship money only added fuel to the fire.  The social unrest that grew out of 3.11 has slowly stoked a new fire among the grassroots, one that the powers that be are now struggling to deal with.

Fast-forward eighteen months to September 11, 2012. Still only a year and a half past a nation-defining moment, Japan is still cobbling together a plan for what it wants to do with its lost innocence. Regardless of party, the government is still widely mistrusted; PM Noda’s approval ratings are below 30%, although it would take some doing to get them down to Former PM Kan’s mid-tens before his long-delayed resignation. As pro-nuclear and pro-business interests continue to push for plant restarts, an ever-growing grassroots anti-nuclear camp is making major waves in national politics. Polls and analysis claim that more than half of the Japanese public prefer a nuclear-free option. All this leaves PM Noda and the government as a whole stuck at a fork with two dark and politically rocky paths before them. Noda can show tough love to the business and utility interests concerned about production costs and cut nuclear power to zero or near-zero, or take a hit with the common folk and stay the course toward keeping a significant portion of their nuclear plants.  Note that in this anti-nuclear environment built up since last March, even talking about building more nuclear plants is political suicide.

Kasumigaseki continues to stare into the darkness before it. Japan’s export-led economy has continued to bear the brunt of a painfully strong yen (remember that we’ve been below 90 JPY/USD for two years now and below 80 for one year), and taxes are set to increase to help pay for this costly disaster. The average age in Japan is still extraordinarily high and supporting old age pensioners is putting a major drag on the nation’s finances that is extremely unpopular to remove. Many fear that an increase in power costs from the lack of what was Japan’s only hope for cheap electricity before 2011 will be the nail in the coffin for Japan’s post-3.11 recovery, leading to as many lost decades as you can count. The Keidanren, or  Japan Business Federation, is not shy about emphasizing that Japan currently has no cost-effective option outside of nuclear energy due to lack of available natural resources.   Although anti-nuclear proponents point to this past summer’s lack of blackouts, utilities like TEPCO have had to restart gas turbines using largely imported fuel to keep Tokyo safe.  Energy reliance and pollution issues aside, trillions of yen in sunk costs are lying fallow across the nation.

PM Noda has shown his tough love to the grassroots once before, saying that even though he and the rest of Japan is well aware of the dangers following the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi, he believes that Japan’s economy needs to restart some reactors (specifically referring to Oi #1 and #2 in Fukui at the time). Having pushed a largely unpopular tax hike through Parliament, he knows what it’s like to make a tough but necessary decision. Now, Noda and the currently ruling DPJ say they want to eventually aim for a nuclear-free option, but the government remains at a standstill without a concrete policy regarding nuclear power.

The big question is, is this such a bad thing in Japan politically? Inaction for many politicians around the world is perceived as the kiss of death; a lack of leadership (stubborn or otherwise) will take your base constituency’s faith away as your opposition accuses you of either waffling or incompetence. But then, Mark Twain said society has taught us that sticking in a rut is consistency and therefore a virtue (admittedly more than a century ago). I’d like to believe that PM Noda and at least a few of the powers that be in Kasumigaseki are genuinely taking the time to hammer this out and make a decision when they’re ready. Noda has hinted at calling general elections in the coming months but if a DPJ-led anti-nuclear initiative doesn’t energize enough voters to counter low approval rates, a shift back to the relatively conservative LDP (Liberal Democratic Party, how confusing that must be to Americans) would almost guarantee a relatively pro-nuclear lean in Tokyo. An LDP-led Diet would certainly work to reverse any move toward taking Japan off atomic power. The LDP in and of itself is also relatively quiet, hardly showing any sort of vision for the future of Japan, instead mired in historical disputes with its neighbors and taking up reactionary positions to opposition policy. Confusion over long-term energy goals has been a problem since 3.11.11 and rising stars like Toru Hashimoto may play a part in the opposition to nuclear in the near future, but at this juncture the burden of progress lies solely with the DPJ; the decision this week on energy policy will either give it a chance to shine or fade back into the ranks of mediocre politicking.

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