Hot Air Zone

Naoto Kan’s statement taking on Japan’s nuclear industry isn’t likely to accomplish anything.


This week, Japan’s lame duck prime minister, Naoto Kan, surprised some observers by coming out against nuclear power, announcing that Japan should scrap its target of 53 percent nuclear dependency in 2030 and focus instead on fostering renewable energy sources. What this means policy-wise is still murky, given that Kan’s credibility is at an all-time low and the Japanese cabinet has yet to show any sign of carrying out his plans. But it may say a lot about the mixed fortunes of Japan’s so-called "nuclear village," the industrial-bureaucratic lobby that was once of the most influential utilities lobbying force in the world.

Before Fukushima, Japan was one of the countries most committed to nuclear energy, with about 30 percent of its electricity coming from atomic reactors and a regulatory structure that appeared to many to side with the nuclear industry in a close relationship that created at least the appearance of collusion. Rather than use solely the power of the state — i.e., the courts — to convince locals to accept the expansion of nuclear power, utilities provided massive direct and indirect subsidies to local communities to buy their acceptance. And the government looked past all this.

The breakdown at Fukushima has altered this situation. Objectively, the accident was far from cataclysmic, compared with industrial catastrophes such as the Bhopal disaster or the hard-to-quantify but surely large number of deaths from cancers and pulmonary diseases caused by the massive industrial pollution that affected Japan in the 1960s. But incidents involving atomic energy have a psychological impact that is out of proportion to the dangers involved, due to their connection to nuclear weapons and the unseen — and thus fearsome — nature of radiation. Had Fukushima been a chemical plant whose destruction by the tsunami had killed thousands, no one would have called for abolishing Japan’s chemical industry.

Now, with politicians like Kan now eager to seek political advantage through standing up against entrenched nuclear interests (as Kan became famous for doing in his 1996 crusade against those responsible for the HIV tainted-blood scandal, including members of the Ministry of Health and Welfare he led at the time), the nuclear village could be in trouble. And yet, the Fukushima effect has largely been felt in Germany, which just announced that it would phase out nuclear power by 2022, and Switzerland, which plans to do the same by 2034, rather than in Japan.

This is due in part to the weakness of Japan’s anti-nuclear movement, which has been decimated by years of industry dominance in public affairs. Several Japanese cities hosted anti-nuclear demonstrations after Fukushima, but there were relatively few participants.

Of course there’s always the possibility that the anti-nuclear movement could expand, particularly if new and damaging revelations about TEPCO are released, or if the still-unstable Fukushima reactors continue to leak more radioactivity, seriously harming rescue workers or children.

But at the same time, world events could also allow the nuclear energy industry to rebuild. If oil prices rise higher, if more revolutions and wars occur in the Arab World and Persian Gulf region, any alternative to oil may start to look extremely attractive.

In any case, it is highly unlikely that this week’s statement from Kan will affect either the long-term fortunes of Japan’s nuclear industry or the regulatory structure of the nuclear village. This is partly because the government is not, currently, equipped to make such sweeping changes. The ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) is totally dysfunctional. The former majority party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), is equally lacking in unity. Some politicians, such as Taro Kono of the LDP, have aggressively criticized nuclear energy, but many others are waiting to how the winds will blow.

Moreover, whereas foreigners are fixated on the Fukushima issue, for most Japanese voters bread-and-butter issues such as pensions, health care, and taxes are far more important. The next election is unlikely to be a referendum on energy policy and much more likely to be about broader economic issues.

Finally, it may simply be difficult for Japan to envisage a nuclear-free future — and no one has put into words exactly what that would mean, certainly not Kan. Would it entail the rapid shut-down of existing plants? Would it involve a schedule to close them over 10 (or 20 or 30) years? Would it simply imply not building new ones? Does Japan want to import more oil and gas from politically unstable regions to compensate for a decline in nuclear power? How much could conservation deliver?

As for altering the regulatory framework, this is an equally complex proposition. In the end, as in other countries like France and America, so long as there are nuclear reactors there will be a nuclear village for a very simple reason: Atomic power is a highly technical field, and only those who are part of the sector can understand its workings, and therefore regulate it. This is not too different from the off-shore oil and gas industry. After the BP oil-spill in the Gulf of Mexico, commentators attacked the cozy relationship between regulator and regulated. But it is hard to see how those who are not deeply involved in off-shore drilling could understand — and thus supervise — the industry.

In other words, things may still change, but it’s too soon to write the obituary for the Japanese nuclear village.

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