Japan’s Energy Policy Stalemate: Democracy or Vested Interests Nuke Info Tokyo No. 152

by Philip White *

Mr. Philip White

The national election was held on 16 December amidst general confusion in Japanese politics. Faith in the governing Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) had sunk to an all time low and for various reasons parties offering a clear policy of phasing out nuclear power were not popular. Therefore, despite the fact that opinion polls still showed the majority supporting a nuclear phase out1 the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), one of the few parties that did not explicitly advocate phasing out nuclear power, won convincingly.

Such are the contradictions of representative democracy. In recognition of the fact that representative democracy does not necessarily produce policies that represent the will of the people, more participatory approaches to government have been promoted throughout the world. Considerable progress has been made at the local level in Japan, but the national government has not yet caught up with the trend.

In this context the “national debate” on energy policy (see NIT 151) held in July-August 2012 should be seen as progress. The “Innovative Energy and Environment Strategy” released shortly after the national debate set the previously unthinkable target of zero nuclear energy by the end of the 2030s. In resolving to phase out nuclear energy, the DPJ government did what no Japanese government had ever done before in the energy policy field: it allowed itself to be influenced by the will of the people.

The backlash was immediate. Business groups banded together to condemn the Strategy, governors of prefectures hosting nuclear facilities expressed concern about the future of these facilities and, perhaps equally significant, the governments of France, the UK and the United States communicated their displeasure. In the face of this onslaught the government went weak at the knees and failed to give the Strategy formal Cabinet endorsement.

National Debate

When the direction of the energy policy review process was first announced at the end of July 2011, a so-called “national debate” was firmly on the agenda, but before the national debate could begin the parameters had to be established. A series of committees spent the better part of a year drafting policy options for the public to consider. Then in July and August last year the national debate finally took place. The public was invited to consider three options for the proportion of nuclear energy in Japan’s electricity generation mix in 2030: zero, 15%, or 20~25%.

The national debate, which involved public comments, public hearings and a deliberative poll, took place against a backdrop of massive protests against Japan’s nuclear power plants. Every Friday evening, from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of people turned out in Tokyo’s political district to protest. Unlike past protest movements, this one did not have any clear organizational backing, so it could not be dismissed as “the usual suspects”.

Despite the protests, the outcome of the national debate must have surprised the government. It appears that the government wanted to choose the 15% nuclear option2, but the overwhelming majority of participants in the public hearings and nearly all the 90,000 public comments favored a total phase out. In many cases they didn’t want to wait till 2030; they wanted Japan’s nuclear power plants to be permanently closed down now.

The outcome of the deliberative poll was not so overwhelming, but in some ways it was even stronger evidence of public support for a nuclear phase out. The support for the zero option amongst the almost 300 randomly selected participants in the two-day event became more and more pronounced as the deliberative process proceeded.

Presented with such a conclusive rejection of nuclear energy in a public participation process on which it had staked its credibility, the government was forced to bend. It had to include the “zero” word somehow. But the Strategy that it came up with was patently contradictory, purporting to support the continuation of the existing nuclear fuel cycle policy and stretching out the phase out deadline to the end of the 2030s, while providing no credible pathway to zero.

Response of Foreign Governments

The public reaction of France and the UK predictably related to Japan’s responsibility to accept the return of radioactive waste from spent nuclear fuel reprocessed in their countries.3 However, the response of the United States was more complex.

The United States is concerned about the proliferation implications of Japan’s massive plutonium stockpile, which currently stands at 44 tons, enough to make over 5,000 Nagasaki-style bombs. If Japan goes ahead with its nuclear fuel cycle program, in particular reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, this plutonium stockpile will groweven larger. But if Japan intends to phase out nuclear power, it will have no reactors in which to use this plutonium.

The US Government could have responded in either of two ways: by stating that it would retract permission to reprocess spent nuclear fuel sourced in the United States, or by pushing Japan to retract its nuclear phase out Strategy. It has certainly expressed its concern about the implications of the contradictory Strategy for Japan’s plutonium stockpile, but it seems to be emphasizing the latter approach, namely calling for Japan to remain committed to nuclear power.

At least one of its motivations is not hard to fathom. In recent years Japan has become more than just a customer for the US nuclear industry. The current state of the US nuclear industry is such that it would be hard pressed to construct nuclear power plants without Japanese cooperation. In fact, Toshiba now owns Westinghouse, while GE’s nuclear operations are run through subsidiaries jointly owned with Hitachi.

A Question of Sovereignty

The Innovative Energy and Environment Strategy was considered by the Cabinet on 19 September, five days after it was released, but to everyone’s surprise the Cabinet did not formally endorse the document. It simply noted it, saying, ‘The Government of Japan will implement future policies on energy and the environment, taking into account “the Innovative Strategy on Energy and the Environment.”’

On 22 September, the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper reported that the US Government had demanded that no Cabinet Decision endorsing the Strategy be made.4 Other newspapers reported that the US Government was pressuring Japan to abandon its nuclear phase out aspirations.5

More recently a series of statements by former senior US officials and advisors suggests a concerted campaign could be underway to intimidate the Japanese Government. These people claim that Japan without nuclear power would be bad for nuclear non-proliferation. The basis for this claim is not fears about Japan’s plutonium stockpile. Rather it is that allegedly Japan without an active nuclear power program would be less able to support the United States’ non-proliferation

John Hamre, a former U.S. deputy secretary of defense, said, “The champions of proliferation prevention were the United States, Europe and Japan. … [I]f Japan stops being nuclear, if America stops being nuclear, if Europe stops being (a collection of) nuclear power countries, who is going to run the global system of security and safety?”6A counter argument would be that Japan, as a leader in renewable energy and energy efficiency, would be a powerful advocate for a nuclear-free future.

The question arises, will the public will expressed in the national debate be over-ridden by pressure from overseas? Will the first tentative steps towards participatory democracy in Japan’s energy policy be thus undermined? The election of an LDP government has confused the picture, but in view of the public sentiment and the impact of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident, even the LDP recognizes that the contribution of nuclear energy to Japan’s electricity supply will have to be drastically reduced from past levels. As more and more active faults are found beneath nuclear power plants, restarts will become more and more difficult, and if the government carries out the reforms needed to promote renewable energy and energy efficiency, construction of new nuclear reactors will become economically unviable.

The United States has no right to tell the Japanese whether or not they should phase out nuclear power. On the other hand, all countries, in particular countries which have nuclear cooperation agreements with Japan, have a legitimate right to demand that Japan not add to its plutonium stockpile. They have every right to demand that Japan not separate any more plutonium at its reprocessing plant in Rokkasho.

As Japan struggles to work out a viable energy policy, it needs all the international support it can get, but it does not need to be bullied

1. “Exit polls conducted by The Asahi Shimbun on Dec. 16 found that 78 percent of respondents favored either an immediate or gradual move toward a nuclear-free society, much larger than the 15 percent who opposed such moves.”
‘Pro-nuclear bureaucrats back in the picture under Abe’ The Asahi Shimbun, December 29, 2012: ajw.asahi.com/article/behind_news/politics/AJ201212290056
2. “At one time, a consensus was developing to reduce the ratio of nuclear energy generation to 15 percent from the approximately 25-percent level before the Fukushima nuclear accident. In May, Goshi Hosono, who was state minister in charge of handling the nuclear accident, said the 15-percent level would be one starting point for discussions.” (ibid.)
3. ‘Western allies concerned about Japan’s no-nuke energy policy’, The Asahi Shimbun, September 14, 2012: ajw.asahi.com/article/0311disaster/fukushima/AJ201209140081
4. ‘Gempatsu Zero: “Henkou Yochi Nokose” – Kakugi Kettei Kaihi – Beiga Youkyuu’, Tokyo Shimbun, September 22, 2012: www.tokyo-np.co.jp/article/feature/nucerror/list/CK2012092202100003.html
5. Jiji, ‘U.S. energy official voices concern over zero nuclear energy target’, The Japan Times, September 14, 2012: www.japantimes.co.jp/text/nn20120914b1.html
6. Yoichi Kato, ‘INTERVIEW/JOHN HAMRE: Japan’s ‘nuclear zero’ goal is bound to hurt global nonproliferation’, The Asahi Shimbun, October 25, 2012:

* Ph.D Student, Centre for Asian Studies, The University of Adelaide
Former International Liaison Officer for CNIC

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