Include Nuclear Power in Japan’s Basic Energy Plan

Politics Economy

Tokyo Voters Say No to “No Nukes”

Voters in Tokyo went to the polls on February 9 to elect a new governor. The victor was Masuzoe Yōichi, former minister of health, labor, and welfare, who had the full backing of the Liberal Democratic Party and of the New Kōmeitō, its coalition partner in the national government. The turnout was 46.14%. Masuzoe got 2,112,979 votes, 43.4% of the total. In distant second place was Utsunomiya Kenji, former president of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, with 982,594 votes (20.2%), trailed by Hosokawa Morihiro, who served as prime minister from 1993 to 1994, with 956,063 (19.6%). Fourth place went to Tamogami Toshio, former chief of staff of the Japan Air Self-Defense Force, with 610,865 (12.5%).

Hosokawa campaigned on a platform of shuttering all of Japan’s nuclear power plants, with strong backing from former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō (2001–6), who has been calling for an immediate halt to nuclear power generation. If he had won, the consequences might well have been serious. Fortunately he did not. Second-place Utsunomiya also campaigned on a no-nuke platform, but even his votes and Hosokawa’s combined, totaling 1,938,657, fell short of Masuzoe’s count. Making nuclear power an issue in the gubernatorial election for Tokyo was peculiar, since the metropolis is not the site of a single nuclear plant, but in any case the outcome of the vote can be taken as a “no” to the idea of no nukes now.

Masuzoe expressed his position on energy policy as follows: “It is important to gradually reduce the structure of dependence on nuclear power, but Tokyo is Japan’s biggest consumer of electricity, and we also must consider the places that supply the power. Coordination with the country as a whole is necessary too.” This strikes me as a well balanced position for the governor of Tokyo to take. I might also note that Masuzoe served for many years on the editorial board of Japan Echo, the predecessor of I wish him success in his new post.

Former JASDF Chief of Staff Tamogami did better than expected in the election, thanks in part to support from netto uyoku, the “Internet right-wingers” who trumpet an extremely inward-looking, xenophobic form of nationalism online. According to exit polling by Kyōdō News, 24% of voters in their twenties said they backed Tamogami, a share second to Masuzoe’s 34%. And on the day after the election, LDP Secretary General Ishiba Shigeru declared that a tenth of the LDP’s supporters seem to have voted for Tamogami. The candidate himself said he was satisfied to have won so many votes in the absence of support from organized blocks of voters and that he looked forward to making another run. I would welcome the launching of a new party for those espousing Tamogami’s views. That would distinguish the right-wing camp from the conservative mainstream, making it clear how much (or little) public support it has.

Move Promptly on the New Basic Energy Plan

According to an article in the daily Nikkei on February 10, the government is planning, in the wake of the Tokyo gubernatorial election outcome, to reach a cabinet decision on its new Basic Energy Plan by the end of February. The preliminary trade statistics for 2013 released by the Ministry of Finance on January 27 showed a record-high trade deficit of ¥11.47 trillion, much bigger than the ¥6.94 trillion deficit for the previous year. This reflects the increased dependence on thermal power generation due to the closure of nuclear plants following the March 2011 earthquake, which has led to greater imports of fuel. Imports of crude oil in 2013 were up by 16.3% from 2012 and accounted for more than 20% of Japan’s total imports, which came to ¥81.26 trillion.

The only way to stop the trade deficit from growing is to reactivate the idled nuclear power plants without further delay. Tokyo voters have rejected the immediate no-nuke option. I hope the government will indeed approve the new Basic Energy Plan this month or by the end of the current fiscal year next month (March 2014) at the latest, and that this plan will explicitly call for reactivation of nuclear plants whose safety has been confirmed by the Nuclear Regulation Authority. The NRA came out with new regulatory standards in July 2013, and seven electric power companies have applied for inspections aimed at reactivating 16 nuclear reactors at nine plants. Bringing the plants back into operation will also require approval from the prefectures and municipalities where they are located. This will take time too. In order to get this process going, the government should finalize its basic energy policy as soon as possible.

Needed: A Variety of Energy Options for Resource-Poor Japan

As I write this column, the government and ruling parties are working out the details of the wording of the new plan. I would note two points in this connection. First, the purpose of the Basic Energy Plan is to set forth the overall policy for securing a steady supply of energy at economically reasonable prices. In order to achieve this, the government must first of all present and implement a clear-cut progress schedule for supplying electricity steadily and economically for the next three to five years—the sooner, the better. And this will require accelerating the process of restarting the nuclear plants as much as possible, while ensuring their safety. It is essential for the government to indicate its clear political determination in this respect in order to have the NRA conduct its safety inspections efficiently and to get the prefectures and municipalities where the plants are located to agree to their reactivation.

Second, Japan’s energy self-sufficiency ratio is extremely low, and we depend on the Middle East for about 80% of our crude oil. So our country is subject to a high level of geopolitical risk. In order to hedge against this risk, it is crucial for us to maintain a variety of energy options—fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas, nuclear power, and renewable sources. And from a medium- to long-term perspective it is also important to invest in research and development in the environmental and energy fields. So the Basic Energy Plan should include concrete initiatives to promote technological innovation along with measures for strengthening Japan’s energy supply structure and enhancing the efficiency of the energy demand structure.

The Basic Energy Plan should in particular note the role of safe nuclear power as part of Japan’s base power supply. Only then can we hope to secure the human resources required to support the safety of nuclear power generation and to maintain and enhance the technology for this purpose.

(Originally written in Japanese on February 17, 2014.)

nuclear Shiraishi Takashi Basic Energy Plan Koizumi Jun'ichirō energy Masuzoe Yōichi Hosokawa Morihiro Tokyo Metropolis Utsunomiya Kenji Tamogami Toshio