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

Unfortunately, the prime minister has done little to mitigate this pressure. His call for the shutdown of Hamaoka in the days following the earthquake sent a clear signal that Fukushima was not unique, and that every host community has reason to fear the local nuclear plant.  Despite this, the administration was recently handed what should have been a major gift when Hideo Kishimoto, the mayor of Genkai, Saga Prefecture, announced his intention to support Kyushu Electric Power Company’s restart of reactors 2 and 3 at the Genkai Nuclear Power Plant.  Pending the prefectural governor’s consent in addition to Kishimoto’s, Genkai would have become the first plant to restart since the earthquake, setting an important national precedent.  But days after Kishimoto’s announcement, the administration surprised and embarrassed him by calling for across-the-board stress tests for the country’s nuclear reactors—Genkai’s included—implying that the mayor was premature in deeming them safe. Though the issue awaits conclusion, the signs aren’t positive, particularly in the wake of the current scandal that has forced the resignation of Kyushu Electric’s president. The episode is an ominous preview of the struggles Japan’s utilities will face between now and April 2012 as they scramble to maintain their energy production capacity.   

Elimination of nuclear energy in Japan isn’t in principle a goal without merit. Particularly in light of the current disaster, the Japanese people are right to demand a re-examination of their nuclear energy paradigm, not only with regard to safety, but also addressing broader issues of regulation, spent fuel use and disposition, and economic competitiveness. Indeed, it may come to bear that the Fukushima emergency provides the foothold needed for a Japanese renewable energy industry that has thus far failed to gain traction.  Any major shift, however, will require decades, not months, in order for Japan to develop the technologies, policies, and infrastructure necessary to support viable energy alternatives. 

Though it is a jagged pill to swallow, a critical first step toward Japan’s long- term recovery is re-enabling its nuclear reactors. This is a matter of national concern, and if local mayors and governors are to make the right decisions for the national good, they deserve forceful and unambiguous national backing. Notwithstanding his efforts to exploit the tide of anti-nuclear sentiment, Kan appears to recognize this—since compelling Hamaoka’s shutdown, his more recent comments have aimed to restore confidence in the country’s nuclear reactors.  Furthermore, dispatching his Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry to lobby on behalf of the restart at Genkai no doubt played a role in Kishimoto’s initial consent to restart the reactors.  But the administration’s message has wound up muddled in Kan’s efforts to have it both ways on the nuclear issue. 

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In the meantime, the clock is ticking. As the Japanese summer heats up, reactors are lining up to shut down, and if they aren’t allowed to come back on line, the pain will be shared among a population whose threshold is already tested. If Japan’s leaders are unable to summon the courage and wisdom to stabilize Japan’s energy supply, this may be only the first of many hot summers for the Japanese people. 

Ryan Shaffer is a programme associate at the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation in Washington where he manages Japan, Korea, and Vietnam programmes. Prior to joining the Mansfield Foundation, he served as a research analyst for the Washington office of the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan. 

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