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Saturday, July 15, 2011
Cutting the nuclear cord
Prime Minister Naoto Kan said Wednesday that he would like to turn Japan into a society that does not have to rely on nuclear power through a planned, stage-by-stage reduction of this reliance. His statement clearly points to a phasing out nuclear power over a long period — a great change in Japan's energy policy.
His idea as a long-term goal is reasonable in view of the fact that the accidents at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plants have underlined the inherent difficulty in ensuring the safety of nuclear power stations in this earthquake-prone country.
But his announcement lacks concrete planning to realize the idea. He also apparently skipped consultations with Cabinet members and leaders of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan. The prime minister must make strenuous efforts to first form a consensus within his Cabinet and the DPJ.
Mr. Kan also needs to have detailed discussions with Cabinet members, DPJ leaders and bureaucrats to work out a long-term road map concerning the phase-out of nuclear power plants, the development of renewable energy sources and a temporary increased use of fossil fuels for power generation.
Without the groundwork, he will face an uphill battle to gain cooperation from the nuclear power establishment, which includes bureaucrats and utility officials, and the nation's manufacturing sector, which needs a stable power supply.
To prevent his idea from being taken as a political maneuver to prolong his political life, he must flesh out the goal with necessary concrete steps for implementation so that his successor can adhere to it.
Mr. Kan said that the crisis at Fukushima No. 1 has made him understand that nuclear power generation is a technology that "can no longer be controlled" with the traditional approach to safety. His perception is correct.
The nuclear accidents are so serious that there is a strong possibility that most of the residents of Fukushima Prefecture who have been evacuated may not be able to return to their homes for a long time.
Other factors also make the continuation of nuclear power generation difficult and untenable. Spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power stations is piling up at storage facilities and these facilities will be filled up in a not so distance future. A facility in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, to dispose of high-level radioactive waste from nuclear power plants has been unable to start operation because of a series of mishaps.
The technology to bury high-level radioactive waste has not yet been established. Even if it is established, burying such dangerous waste for tens of thousands of years will pose a serious moral question because such entombment can cause seriously damage the health of future generations.
The cost of nuclear power generation is not cheap if the cost for disposing of radioactive waste and subsidies to municipalities that host nuclear power plants are taken into consideration. An estimate by Ritsumeikan University professor Kenichi Oshima that factors in subsidies to hosting municipalities and for the development of nuclear technology shows that the cost for generating one kWh of electricity is ¥10.68 for nuclear power, compared with ¥9.9 for thermal power and ¥7.26 for hydroelectric power.
When a major nuclear accident occurs, monetary compensation for the victims is enormous, not to mention the damage to health. Nuclear power generation embodies structural discrimination in that while nuclear power plants are built in the countryside and residents there are exposed to potential dangers from such facilities, those who benefit the most from nuclear power generation live in urban areas.
If these factors are squarely looked at, it is clear that the time has come for the government to rethink its traditional policy of promoting nuclear power generation.
Last year, the government adopted a policy of increasing the percentage of nuclear power generation in the nation's total electricity output to 53 percent by 2030.
In his announcement, Mr. Kan said that "in view of the major accidents" at Fukushima No. 1, it is his responsibility as prime minister to rethink the policy. Such a change to the policy will be welcomed as a logical step by a majority of people.
Mr. Kan pointed to the possibility that after the stress tests on reactors are conducted, nuclear power plants that have been suspended for regular checks may be restarted.
In view of a fear among manufacturing firms about severe power shortages, this is reasonable as a short-term policy. But there is also the possibility that all nuclear power plants may halt operations as a consequence of the stress tests.
The government and the power industry should present concrete data on available power plants and their total output, and show how much electricity people will have to save. Mr. Kan will be able to persuade people to cooperate when he presents hard data.
Because nuclear power accounted for about 30 percent of Japan's power generation before the Fukushima nuclear accidents, it is impossible to immediately abandon nuclear power. Mr. Kan should be thinking in terms of at least 20 to 30 years for the transition.
As a first step, he must make serious efforts to ensure an early passage of a bill that institutes a system in which utilities will be required to buy all the electricity generated through renewable sources at an established fixed price.