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Saturday, Sep. 15, 2012

No-nuke plan official, quick to draw flak

Policy called poll ploy to save DPJ, hit by fuel cycle foes, Keidanren


By KAZUAKI NAGATA and ERIC JOHNSTON
Staff writers

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's Cabinet on Friday officially adopted a new long-term energy strategy that calls for elimination of nuclear power dependency by the end of the 2030s, but the new goal quickly came under fire from experts, antinuclear activists and lobbying groups.

Critics said the new energy goals, published in a 20-page policy paper, lack key details about how to achieve the target and will still maintain the existing nuclear fuel recycling program, which they say is a major contradiction with the zero-nuclear goal.

The Democratic Party of Japan-led government is advocating the zero-nuclear policy only because it is desperate to curry favor with voters ahead of the next Lower House election, in which the party is expected to suffer a crushing defeat, they said.

Polls conducted by major media companies have indicated a majority of the public wants to end reliance on nuclear energy sometime in the future. The polls were carried out after the March 2011 triple-meltdown crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant caused widespread nuclear fallout on the land and sea, massive evacuations and revelations that the nation's atomic plants, all coastal, had not prepared adequate quake-tsunami defenses. The Fukushima crisis continues.

"I think the DPJ and the government just wanted to set a 'zero' goal because a general election is coming up," said Takeo Kikkawa, a professor at Hitotsubashi University and an energy policy expert.

"The decision to approve this new energy strategy is premature," said Kikkawa, who has taken part in a panel under the industry ministry to discuss the long-term energy strategy.

The government also indicated the zero-nuclear policy could be revised, depending on such factors as progress in the development of renewable energy and public opinion.

In addition, the paper said the government will temporarily reactivate reactors that have been halted amid the Fukushima nuclear crisis once the new atomic regulatory authority that debuts next week confirms their safety.

The paper does not explain how any reactor restart would be consistent with the eventual goal of ending all reliance on nuclear power.

The new energy goals don't touch on crucial details in abolishing nuclear power, including likely electricity rate hikes following the total halt of reactors, how to increase renewable energy and how to win the consent of local governments that host nuclear facilities.

The new energy plan says the government will maintain the existing program to recycle uranium and plutonium fuels after it was argued that the recycling program is needed to keep consuming plutonium for peaceful purposes and prevent proliferation of nuclear materials.

Consideration was also given to the prefectures still hoping to maintain facilities related to the recycling, the government said.

Keeping the recycling program in place "is proof that the current government is not serious about phasing out nuclear power," argued antinuclear activist Aileen Mioko Smith of the Kyoto-based group Green Action.

Kikkawa said if the government wants to really end nuclear energy, it needs to be more concrete about how to deal with the expected challenges, including how to get local governments, such as Fukui and Aomori prefectures, to give up atomic facilities that have been long lucrative cash sources.

Both prefectures, which host nuclear plants and fuel-recycling facilities, have already expressed opposition to the zero scenario and want the government to give them a better explanation moving forward.

Kikkawa also said it is unclear how the government will address possible negative effects from the drastic reduction of nuclear power, such as electricity rate hikes. The zero-nuclear policy will erode the profitability of utilities and eventually push up power rates for end-users, given the massive of amount of fossil fuels needed for thermal power generation.

"Through national debates (over energy policies), it has been confirmed that many people and companies are concerned" that the zero-nuclear option could critically damage their daily lives and industries, the government said in the policy paper.

The paper said the government will construct more natural gas pipelines and try to stably procure more liquefied natural gas from North America to keep fuel costs low.

Yet it does now show any prediction on how much the LNG shift will additionally cost if all nuclear plants are abolished.

"It's extremely regrettable that what our company advocated was not accepted in the government's decision. The policy of zero nuclear reactors in operation in the 2030s is not a government action that defends the lifestyle of the people" Shosuke Mori, chairman of the Kansai Economic Federation and Kansai Electric Power Co., wrote in a press release.

Kepco President Makoto Yagi warned that the new energy goals damaged the trust of the people in Fukui Precture, which hosts 11 Kepco reactors, including the two at the Oi plant that were restarted in July — the only ones now running.

"Aiming for zero nuclear power plants means an increase in fossil fuel prices, utility bills, problems with global warming, and problems ensuring necessary personnel for nuclear power," Yagi said, also in a press release.

Hiromasa Yonekura, chairman of the powerful Keidanren business lobby, said Thursday he called Noda and told him the zero scenario is unacceptable because the resulting higher electricity fees will hurt businesses and the economy.

"The ruling parties should not be swayed by elections. They should think about the future of this country," he said.

Under the new plan, the government will try to increase the use of renewable energy from the current 10 percent to 30 percent of the country's total energy mix by 2030.

Setting ambitious renewable energy targets takes coordination at the top levels of government, some critics said. Some countries like India have created a ministry of renewable energies, and Tomas Kaberger, executive board chair at the Japan Renewable Energy Foundation, said the sheer volume of work will require Japan to do something similar.

"If you look at European countries that have successfully developed renewable energy, you'll see they all have some sort of institution for that purpose. I can clearly see where Japan will need a government institution of some sort, be it a ministry or an agency, tasked with officiating the development of renewable energy and manned by people who will do just that," he said.



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