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Sunday, Sep. 23, 2012

OUR PLANET EARTH

Japan's nuclear phaseout: Is it all smoke and mirrors?


On Sept. 14, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's administration announced that Japan would end nuclear-power generation by 2040. Five days later his Cabinet failed to endorse the new policy; but on the same day, Sept. 19, Trade Minister Yukio Edano insisted that the government would still act "based on" the plan.

Confused? Here in Japan it seems everyone is.

Phasing out nuclear power is a not bad idea. On the contrary, it's the only reasonable and rational choice for Japan: a nation on the Pacific Rim of Fire where continuous seismic activity is a given; a nation where politicians, government bureaucrats and utility executives are so cozy that the citizens' interests are never the first priority; a nation rich in alternative-energy potential, including wind, solar, hydro, geothermal and oceanic.

And since no one is truly happy with Noda's plan, some might argue that this proves it is a reasonable compromise among competing interests. But ambiguity in laying out Japan's 21st-century energy policy is simply bad politics, and will likely accelerate Noda's fall from the political stage.

In a Sept. 15 article, the New York Times quoted Tetsunari Iida, director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies — which supports an end to nuclear power and the adoption of renewable energies — saying: "It's trickery with words and numbers. The zero number might be symbolic politically, but in reality, it holds little meaning."

In the opposite corner stands Keidanren, Japan's powerful business federation, which is pro-nuclear. Keidanren Chairman Hiromasa Yonekawa termed the plan "unrealistic and unreachable."

"Industrial circles, which have been doing everything possible to maintain the level of employment, can never approve such a policy. It's a total contradiction to the government's growth strategy," a Yomiuri Shimbun editorial on its Sept. 15 English website quoted Yonekawa as saying.

Clearly, the country's two major daily newspapers, the Asahi and the Yomuri, are taking opposite sides in this battle — but both are critical of the plan.

"It was extremely irresponsible of the government to set out a 'zero nuclear power' policy without illustrating the details of how the nation is supposed to secure a stable supply of electricity," said the pro-nuclear Yomiuri. "Such a sloppy, immature scheme is totally unworthy of a national energy policy," the paper lamented.

The Asahi was more charitable, but still displeased.

"We welcome the government's decision, which is based on the fact that many Japanese are seriously concerned about the magnitude of the problems with nuclear-power generation. That said, the government cannot yet claim that it has offered a clear road map toward a future without nuclear power," that paper chided.

"The new energy strategy adopts three principles to realize that vision: Idled reactors will be restarted only if they are judged to be safe by a new nuclear regulatory commission; a 40-year limit on the lifetime of reactors will be strictly applied; and no new nuclear reactors will be built.

"But simply applying a legal lifespan of 40 years to the existing reactors would leave 20 reactors in operation in January 2030, and five reactors would be still on line even in 2040," the Asahi pointed out.

In the 18 months since the explosions and three meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, a majority of Japan's citizens and increasing numbers of politicians have come to support a non-nuclear future for the nation.

Seemingly intent on wooing this anti-nuclear majority, the Noda camp has proposed a vague no-nukes policy — but one that Noda himself does not fully support.

"The prime minister has not changed his opinion that nuclear power plants are important," notes the Yomiuri on Sept. 16, quoting a Noda aide.

But the same Yomiuri article cited a senior ministry official as saying, "(The strategy) is full of contradictions and can't be explained in a logical manner."

In an effort to make no enemies, Noda has made no friends. He and his supporters have crafted a proposal that has many Japanese hoping for zero nuclear power by 2040, or sooner, and their opponents scrambling to find loopholes that will allow nuclear-power generation to remain up and running decades beyond that date.

And since those who drafted the proposal have ensured that there is plenty of wiggle room to restart, to build and to extend the life of reactors in Japan, no one can fully embrace Noda's plan because no one knows where it will lead over the next 30 years.

Far better to be decisive and clear, as the German government has been with its stated intention and plan to make the country nuke-free by 2020.

Obviously many in the Keidanren wouldn't be happy if the Japanese declared a policy similar to Germany's, but at least the business sector would be able to invest in alternative energy sources with confidence, knowing that the government will not make random policy changes over the next three decades.

Beyond the Tokyo government's muddled policymaking, however, there is little doubt how Japanese residents feel about their own energy future.

An Asahi Shimbun public opinion poll conducted in early August found that 79 percent of respondents had either "not much confidence" (50 percent) or "no confidence" (29 percent) in the government's safety measures regarding nuclear power. Only 1 percent of the respondents declared themselves as having "great confidence" in those measures, while 18 percent expressed "some confidence."

Asked how much hope they placed in renewable energies such as solar and wind power, 12 percent of respondents said "not much hope." Significantly, however, 54 percent expressed "some hope," while 29 percent replied with "great hope."

Meanwhile, the same Asahi poll also asked respondents whether they felt that the national debate regarding nuclear-power production and future energy policy has been sufficient.

Just 10 percent felt the debate had been "sufficient," while 81 percent replied it had been "insufficient."

Japan's friends overseas, too, are confused and concerned — except perhaps Germany, which is likely wondering why Japan has taken so long to move toward the non-nuclear option, which Germany did in the spring of 2011 soon after the Fukushima explosions and meltdowns.

Britain, France and the United States are actively involved in the business of nuclear power, and all are closely tied to Japan's nuclear industry. Britain and France reprocess spent nuclear-fuel materials from Japan's reactors, separating uranium and plutonium from the spent fuels and returning these, and the remaining wastes, to Japan. Now these two nations are concerned that Japan's new policy direction might mean they are left holding Japan's lethal wastes.

According to media sources, even before Noda's 2040 plan was made public, Sir David Warren, the British ambassador to Japan, visited Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura to seek assurances that Japan intends to pick up canisters of its radioactive waste that sit waiting for shipment to Japan.

It has also been reported that the French ambassador, Christian Masset, will officially request that Japan promise to repatriate nuclear wastes.

Even France, which depends more heavily on nuclear power than any other nation, with 78.8 percent of its electricity coming from nuclear reactors, is having a change of heart.

On the same day Japan announced its new policy, French President Francois Hollande announced that France would begin to reduce nuclear-power generation, dropping to 50 percent by 2025.

But problems related to Japan's nuclear-fuel cycle don't end there.

Once wastes reach Japan, they are placed in a temporary storage facility in Aomori Prefecture, which presents Japan with another conundrum — namely, if it gets out of the nuclear-power business, what will become of its growing stockpile of high-level nuclear wastes that were supposed to be reprocessed and reused as nuclear fuel?

Noda's plan vaguely foresees maintaining the nuclear-fuel cycle, but to no purpose if nuclear-power generation is brought to an end. Having never agreed to become the final resting place for thousands of tons of deadly nuclear materials, Aomori officials are livid.

Nor has any other prefecture agreed to provide permanent storage of wastes, whether uranium or plutonium, which is not surprising given that deep underground storage remains the most commonly touted option worldwide — and subterranean Japan is rife with grinding tectonic plates, volcanic activity and shearing faults.

With ripples of worry, confusion and frustration rolling out in all directions from Tokyo, one can only wonder what the Noda administration was thinking and why they announced a plan prior to any consultation with domestic officials and foreign friends.

One of the clearest indications that Noda's 2040 plan was served half-baked is the fact that Noda's Cabinet was surprised when the U.S. government voiced serious concerns regarding Japan's tentative steps toward the zero option.

Failing to keep the U.S. informed — its closest ally and partner in nuclear-technology development — shows a startling lack of political acumen if indeed Washington got the same version of the story as the rest of us.

Here, skepticism is justified. It has been reported that U.S. officials were told the Noda plan simply suggests that Japan will pursue the zero option — but it does not mean that Japan has made a final decision to stop using nuclear power.

So let's cut the political obfuscation, Mr. Noda. Japan has been patient for 18 months and is tired of waiting. Take a stand and tell us: What is Japan's plan for its energy future?

Stephen Hesse teaches in the Chuo University Law Faculty and is director of the Chuo International Center. He can be reached at stevehesse@hotmail.com


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