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Abe Visits Ottawa; Harper Agrees to Shale Gas Exports

On September 24 Prime Minister Abe Shinzō met in Ottawa with Stephen Harper, his Canadian counterpart. The two leaders effectively decided to adopt a bilateral acquisition and cross-servicing agreement, which will allow Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and Canada’s military to provide each other with materiel and transportation services in cases where they are jointly involved in international humanitarian relief operations. They also reached an agreement on future Japanese imports of shale gas from Canada.

As reported in the Mainichi Shimbun on September 26, the Japanese government intends to extend active support for operations relating to Canadian exports of shale gas in the hope of getting Japan’s imports of this gas started promptly. Tokyo will undertake ministerial-level consultations with Ottawa on specific measures, such as steps to promote pipeline construction. Exports could start as early as 2019, with an anticipated annual volume on the order of 8 million–9 million tons, or roughly one-tenth of Japan’s total gas imports, which are about 87 million tons a year. Since the cost of transporting shale gas from Canada to Japan will be lower than that for gas from the United States, which will have to be shipped via the Panama Canal, the bill for the gas may be a dollar or two lower per million British thermal units than the $10–$12 cost estimated for potential imports of US-produced shale gas—and only about half that of liquefied natural gas imported from Qatar, which costs about $17 per million BTUs.

Ever since the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident, Japan has had to greatly increase its imports of oil and gas for thermal power generation, and this has put its trade balance into the red. This year alone these imports are expected to cost the country an extra ¥3.8 trillion–¥4.0 trillion. It will be highly welcome if imports of shale gas from Canada allow Japan to diversify its sources of natural gas and to reduce its energy bill over the long term.

Who Is to Decide About Japan’s Energy Policy?

The operational phrase here, I would note, is “over the long term.” The prospect of moderately priced shale gas from Canada as part of Japan’s future energy mix in no way addresses the issue of how to overcome the energy problem that our country is currently facing. In his policy speech to the National Diet on February 28, Prime Minister Abe declared: “Reflecting on the accident at Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, under the Nuclear Regulation Authority, we will foster a new culture of safety that will uncompromisingly enhance the degree of safety. After doing so we will restart nuclear power plants where safety has been confirmed.” But with the shutdown on September 15 of the No. 4 reactor at the Ōi Nuclear Power Plant of Kansai Electric Power Co. for a regularly scheduled inspection, not a single one of Japan’s 50 nuclear reactors is currently generating electricity. This is because the Nuclear Regulation Authority has been taking its time allowing reactors to be restarted.

Under the June 2012 law establishing the NRA, the body’s responsibilities are defined as follows:

[U]nder the recognition that the possibility of accidents in the use of nuclear energy should be always kept in mind and that the best and utmost efforts need to be made for the prevention of accidents, this Act aims to establish the Nuclear Regulation Authority, which will integrally govern affairs for developing and implementing measures necessary for ensuring safety in the use of nuclear energy based on established international criteria (such affairs shall include those concerning refining activities, fabricating and enrichment activities, interim storage activities, reprocessing activities and waste disposal activities concerning nuclear energy, as well as regulations on reactors, and those concerning regulations for implementing safeguards based on international commitments, and other regulations for ensuring the peaceful use of nuclear energy) and in which the Chairman and the Commissioners will exercise their authority independently, based on their own expertise, from a neutral and fair standpoint, thereby contributing to the protection of the lives, health, and property of the citizens, preservation of the environment, and national security of Japan.(*1)

It is very much open to argument whether the NRA has since its establishment actually been developing and implementing measures necessary for ensuring safety in the use of nuclear energy “based on established international criteria.” In fact, doubts have been expressed internationally with respect to the regulatory standards it implemented in July 2013 regarding active faults within or around the sites of nuclear power plants—more specifically, its requirement that facilities with important safety functions be confirmed “not to have outcroppings of faults with the possibility of future [seismic] activity,” that “faults with the possibility of future activity” are “ones for which it is not possible to deny activity [i.e., to confirm that no activity has occurred] since the late Pleistocene” (120,000–130,000 years ago), and further that, where it is impossible to make a clear determination regarding this criterion, the active status of faults is to be assessed on the basis of comprehensive consideration of topographical features and geological structures and stress fields going back as far as the middle Pleistocene (some 400,000 years ago).

What is more critical than such particulars, however, is the fact that the law establishing the NRA explicitly gives it the responsibility for “ensuring safety in the use of nuclear energy,” but not for Japan’s energy policy. And yet this policy is now entrusted to this authority, because no nuclear power plant is allowed to operate without its decision on safety. Whether this is as it should be is a matter of high-level political judgment. With respect to monetary policy, Prime Minister Abe made it clear shortly after taking office in December 2012 that if the Bank of Japan did not adopt an inflation target at its policy meeting the following month, he would seek revision of the law governing the central bank. And in March he appointed Kuroda Haruhiko as BOJ governor. In this way, Abe saw to it that the bank adopted the policy stance that he considered appropriate. Now the prime minister needs to determine whether to let the NRA take its time in deciding on the safety of nuclear power plants and in effect to let the NRA have a decisive say in Japan’s energy policy, or to ask the NRA to do its job as soon as possible in view of the enormous cost it is imposing on Japan.

Overcome the Reluctance to Appoint Science and Technology Advisors

On July 31 the government’s Council for Science and Technology Policy decided to seek an appropriation of ¥51.7 billion in the budget for the fiscal year starting April 2014 to promote the creation of science, technology, and innovation, establishing a Strategic Innovation Promotion Program as a new measure to reinforce the CSTP’s functions as the control tower (“headquarters”) for science, technology, and innovation policy. The July 31 decision reflects the council’s policy for resource allocation under the Abe administration’s Japan Revitalization Strategy (growth strategy) and the Comprehensive Strategy on Science, Technology, and Innovation adopted by the CSTP on June 6.

The pairing of innovation with science and technology in the formulation “science, technology, and innovation”—or “STI” for short—has been seen frequently since the adoption of the Fourth Science and Technology Basic Plan in 2011. Recently, though, the science and technology community has been energetically debating the merits of this combination, probably because of the prospect of budget funding for STI on a unified basis under the Cabinet Office starting next fiscal year. I would like to make two points in this connection.

The first point concerns the creation of the new post of “science and technology advisor” within the government. As seen in its Comprehensive Strategy on Science, Technology, and Innovation, the CSTP seems to be taking a negative stance on this idea out of concern that it could result in a two-track system of STI policymaking. But the role of such advisors would not overlap that of the council. The council, as its name indicates, is charged with formulating policy for science and technology. The proposed advisors, by contrast, would advise the prime minister on science for policy. More specifically, such advisors would offer counsel on policy in all sorts of fields, ranging from national security and defense to health care, STI, and the environment, regarding (1) scientific perspectives to be considered in policymaking (for example, the implications of advances in robotics, brain-machine interfaces, and information and communications technology for defense policy) and (2) the significance of proposed policies for science and technology. The creation of this post merits more favorable consideration, I believe.

My second point concerns the reaction of the scientific community. Some scientists point out that it generally takes about 100 years for a new basic discovery in science to become socially useful, and they suggest it is wrong for the government to focus on “innovation” as part of its efforts to promote science and technology. It is certainly true that practical applications of scientific discoveries can take a long time to emerge. James Clerk Maxwell set forth the basic principles of electromagnetic radiation in 1864, but it was not until around 1940, some 80 years later, that radio waves came into general use. Considerable lags can also be seen in the application of superconductivity, discovered by the Dutch physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes in 1911, and of Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. But such observations do not answer the question of who is to pay for scientific and technological research—and in particular, why such spending is an appropriate use of taxpayers’ money. In the wake of the March 2011 accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, public trust in the scientific community has been substantially eroded. I do not think scientists can hope for the government to simply provide funds without saying anything about how they are to be used.

Nippon.com Starts Its Third Year, Launches Russian Edition

This month (October 2013) marks the start of the third year of publication for Nippon.com, and it brings the launch of a Russian-language edition. Our readership has increased steadily over the past two years, and we intend to continue striving to meet our readers’ expectations.

(Originally written in Japanese on October 1, 2013.)

(*1) ^ Act for Establishment of the Nuclear Regulation Authority (provisional translation), Article 1, http://www.nsr.go.jp/english/data/rl_0617.pdf.

Shiraishi Takashi politics shale gas economy energy science Shale revolution sci-tech