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Japan’s Necessary Nuclear Future (Page 2 of 3)

Kan, no doubt noting an alarming similarity between his disapproval numbers and the 70 percent of Japanese who call for the abandonment of nuclear power, appears inclined to exploit the popular rancour.  Calling for sharp reductions in national reliance on nuclear energy, while suggesting the possibility of a snap election on national energy policy, Kan is aiming to align himself with the anti-nuclear movement while using nuclear energy as a wedge against the historically nuclear-friendly LDP. 

Furthermore, the prime minister has sitting before the Diet a bill that would retroactively absolve the government of responsibility to use public money to assist TEPCO in compensating victims of the Fukushima disaster. At issue is a technicality in Japan’s current nuclear liability law that calls for government assistance in a nuclear emergency and fully absolves the nuclear operator in the case of an ‘exceptional’ event. The pending law would effectively decree that the magnitude 9 earthquake and 40-foot tsunami was something other than exceptional, going further to define the government’s financial obligations as limited to long-term loans, while burdening TEPCO with infinite liability for the current crisis. By extension, it would make it clear to Japan’s nine other nuclear utilities that they now operate their own nuclear reactors at infinite financial risk to their shareholders. To say nothing of the discouraging signal that such retroactive legislation would send to any business considering whether to build its next operation in Japan or, say, South Korea, the law would make Japan’s utilities think very carefully about whether they are better off continuing to generate nuclear energy or walking away from their nuclear assets.  

In reality, it’s likely that no snap election will be held, and the nuclear power industry can take comfort in the fact that the above legislation will probably not pass. Overaggressive law making has, after all, hardly been Japan’s problem for the last decade. 

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A more immediate problem exists, however, in that, due to a peculiarity of the nuclear energy paradigm in Japan (and a little bit of ill-timed alarmism by the prime minister), Japan’s nuclear facilities find themselves in the tenuous position of depending not on Nagatacho’s reliable ambivalence, but rather on its heretofore lacking of resolve and assertiveness. 

Particular to Japan is a system in which Japanese local mayors and governors hold de facto vetoes over a utility’s decision to start operation of a nuclear reactor. The nature of modern nuclear reactors is such that they must stop periodically for refuelling—in Japan that period is 13 months. This means that within 13 months of last March 11, every nuclear reactor in Japan will have shut down for refuelling and inspection, and each will then be forced to run the gauntlet of multiple layers of elected officials to secure authorization to restart.  This is never a sure bet in the best of times.  In the present circumstances, such officials will be under tremendous pressure to deny the utilities, with their political futures no doubt weighing heavily on their minds. 

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