Shaping Japan's nuclear policy to be Abe's key task after election

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would face an important task of shaping Japan's nuclear policy if his Liberal Democratic Party wins the July 21 upper house election, as the country still lacks a long-term energy strategy more than two years after the Fukushima Daiichi complex disaster.

After the LDP swept to power by winning the lower house election in December last year, the new government has retracted its predecessor's goal of phasing out nuclear power in the 2030s, and vowed to push for the restart of idled reactors.

The new approach signals that nuclear power will continue to play a certain role to meet the energy demand of the resource-poor country, but the government has been skirting around the issue ahead of the House of Councillors election in an apparent bid to avoid provoking antinuclear sentiment in the public.

Sensing that a pro-nuclear stance will not be well-received by the voters, eight major parties other than the LDP have basically pledged to aim for a society with no nuclear power generation.

But political experts are doubtful that each party's stance on nuclear power will be a critical factor to voting behavior, as seen also in the general election in December, which was the first national election since the Fukushima nuclear crisis was triggered by a huge earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011.

"It's a question of intensity (in terms of opposition to restarting nuclear power plants)...obviously it's not intense enough that that issue overrides every other issue in the public's mind when it comes to deciding where, who to vote for," Gerald Curtis, a veteran scholar of Japanese politics, said at a recent press conference in Tokyo.

"The intensity is most extreme on the question of economic growth. And so as long as there's expectations that the LDP will pull that off, that's what will be able to keep on getting supported," the burgess professor at Columbia University added.

With none of the opposition parties unlikely to become an attractive choice for people who do not want to vote for the LDP because they are opposed to nuclear power generation, other pundits said that the government may take bolder steps toward restarting reactors once the upper house election is over.

The country's independent nuclear regulation authority has just started accepting applications for safety checks on idled reactors as new safety regulations took effect on July 8, raising speculation that some units may clear the checks and resume operation from next year.

The government has vowed to facilitate the resumption process by seeking to secure local consent on the restart of reactors that are confirmed safe enough by the NRA, but it could face criticism that it is irresponsible to push for the revival of atomic power without setting a clear policy direction.

Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said the new medium- to long-term energy plan will be compiled around the end of the year, which will replace the one that aimed to boost the nation's reliance on nuclear power to some 50 percent in 2030 from around 30 percent before the disaster.

But he has been reluctant to include specific percentages on the country's nuclear dependence in the plan, telling a parliamentary committee in June that it is "not the mission" of the panel in charge to come up with figures about the appropriate future energy mix.

The government has also not made clear whether it will allow the construction of new reactors. In late May, a government panel started reviewing the stalled process to find a site to dispose of high-level radioactive waste, but no deadline has been set for the talks.

"What the government has in mind is just restarting as quickly as possible reactors that have cleared the new safety standards," Tatsuya Murakami, the antinuclear mayor of Tokaimura in Ibaraki Prefecture, where Japan's first commercial nuclear plant was built nearly 50 years ago, told Kyodo News recently.

"It is cunning (to push for reactors' resumption) without deciding anything on the country's nuclear policy after experiencing the Fukushima crisis," he said.

With utilities hurrying to have their reactors brought back online as they could save on expensive costs for fossil fuel, nuclear opponents and civic groups are calling on the public to join forces to block the move.

"The LDP and its ruling coalition ally talk in the election campaign about ending the divided Diet (by taking control of the now opposition-controlled upper house), but I think the biggest twist in this country is that reactors are heading to a restart when many Fukushima people are still living as evacuees because of the reactors," Katsumi Hasegawa, who left central Fukushima with his family about five months after the nuclear disaster struck, told a gathering on July 8.

"Unless we resolve this situation, disaster victims cannot make their way forward," the 46-year-old Hasegawa said.

Kohta Juraku, who specializes in sociology of science and technology, however, suggested that the tension between the government's pro-nuclear tone and the antinuclear sentiment among the public will likely remain.

"The point is whether society can keep its pressure on the government for the realization of a gradual phase-out of nuclear power, which has been consistently supported by a majority of the public. But with no election likely to be held (in the next three years if the LDP wins the July 21 election), it's not easy to find other effective leverages to control the government over a period of time," the assistant professor at Tokyo Denki University said.