Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Empire Strikes Back

What does the LDP's election victory in December 2012 mean for Japanese energy policy?

The LDP platform made a bow toward phasing out nuclear power (Japan should “strive to build an economy and society that does not rely on nuclear power”), but stated that any decision about future energy mix is only to be made “within the next ten years”.  Meanwhile, post-election, Prime Minister Abe made a number of statements that sound like a nuclear power booster, indicating that Japan should build new reactors, and the government should strive to obtain “public understanding” to do so.

How much of a change is this?  The official policy change is very subtle.  But Abe’s tone is far less reluctant.  He notes, rightly, that any new reactors to be built use an advanced design, and should be safer, more reliable, longer-lived and cheaper than old ones such as Fukushima Daiichi, and sounds almost eager to push ahead with nuclear power.

Then again, will the Japanese people really trust statements about nuclear safety … statements remarkably similar to what they were told in the past, but which were disproved by the Fukushima accident?  Prime Minister Abe seems to think that an election victory gives him a mandate to promote nuclear power.  But a pro- (or at least slightly less anti-) nuclear position was not why he won the election.  Indeed, the LDP’s platform on the issue was almost indistinguishable from the DPJ.  And the LDP’s coalition partner, Komeito, has a clear anti-nuclear stance.  Asahi Shimbun exit polls indicate that 78 percent of voters favor either an immediate or gradual move AWAY from nuclear power.  Only 15 percent oppose such a move.  And cabinet representatives have gotten some rough treatment on television and in other public venues when the discussion turns to nuclear's future.

My prediction is that Mr. Abe will have as much success in promoting nuclear power as George W. Bush did in privatizing social security using the “political capital” he felt he had accrued in defeating John Kerry in 2004.

And the government must work with the new, more independent Nuclear Regulatory Authority, which has recently discovered likely “active” seismic faults under two groups of reactors that otherwise would be top of the list for potential restart.

Fortunately, regardless of how the nuclear discussion plays out, everyone, including the LDP, supports a continued investment in renewable energy, and diversification of sources (and reduced cost) for fossil fuels.

As for other reforms of the electricity system -- we shall see.  There is some good news in that METI advisory committees are moving ahead with plans to split generation, transmission and distribution.  Apparently they are adopting a proposal to operate these functions in separate subsidiaries of the large utilities.

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