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Thursday, June 7, 2012
Official Kansai's reactor nod puzzles
Many feel Kepco, firms used threats of power loss to economy; Hashimoto said no nuke foe
OSAKA — More than a week after the seven-prefecture and two-city Union of Kansai Governments reversed months of tough opposition to the restart of two nuclear reactors, the decision is still causing controversy among area residents who want to know why the change of heart.
Many recognize the leaders were concerned about being blamed for the economic damage that would result if tough energy conservation measures or blackouts became necessary.
Prior to last year's Tohoku quake, about half of the Kansai region's electricity was supplied by nuclear power, including from 11 reactors run by Kansai Electric Power Co.
This means the region is particularly vulnerable to shortages if all reactors stay offline, and plans to reduce electricity use by at least 15 percent were announced under the assumption the two reactors at the Oi plant in Fukui Prefecture wouldn't be fired back up in time for the summer demand.
Over the past few months, intense lobbying of political leaders by Kansai Electric Power Co. and threats by major corporate supporters to relocate outside the region were cited by the Union of Kansai Governments as reasons for caving in.
"The pressure from Kansai's corporate leaders to restart the reactors was really strong," said Shiga Gov. Yukiko Kada, who had been one of the staunchest opponents of the restart.
Kyoto Gov. Keiji Yamada faced particularly strong pressure from major Kyoto-area hotel, restaurant and tour operators worried that strict conservation steps or blackouts would keep tourists away.
"Kepco put a lot of pressure on companies in the Kansai region, telling them that without the Oi reactors, they would face rolling blackouts. Those firms, in turn, pressured Kansai-area politicians, saying that if there were blackouts they would have to relocate outside the Kansai region," said Shigeaki Koga, a senior member of a committee appointed by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto to look into the city's energy strategy.
Citing central government progress in creating a new nuclear regulatory agency and deregulating energy supplies, Hashimoto admitted defeat but said he had done all he could as mayor. Still, there were questions among supporters and opponents over whether Hashimoto had agreed to a restart in exchange for central government support for his plan to merge the city of Osaka with the prefecture, which the ruling Democratic Party of Japan is now debating.
In addition, Osaka media were debating whether he backed off out of concern for losing the political and financial support of members of the Kansai Economic Federation and Kansai Association of Corporate Executives who support his bureaucratic reform plans for Osaka and for Japan but disagree with his stance on nuclear power.
However, freelance journalist Yuji Yoshitomi, who has written books on Hashimoto and the city of Osaka, says the real reasons for his change of mind were fear of being blamed for blackouts and the fact that he is not really an opponent of nuclear power and just used the issue for political gain.
Antinuclear activists point out that if Hashimoto was truly concerned about nuclear safety over the long run, he wouldn't have opposed a referendum drive in February that sought to get Osaka out of nuclear power. Saying the wording of the referendum proposal was unenforceable, Hashimoto and his Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka) group voted down the measure.
"I wasn't surprised when he agreed to the restart, as I never thought he was really antinuclear. And he is unlikely to suffer much mid- or long-term political damage as people turn on their air conditioners and forget about what happened," Yoshitomi said.
Media polls over the past few days back that analysis, with a poll by Mainichi Broadcasting System showing that 54 percent of Osaka voters still support Hashimoto's policies. Other media polls, including those conducted online, show a plurality of Osaka voters believe he had no choice but to agree to a restart given the threat of economic damage.