Will Japan Go Nuclear Free? part 1

On March 11, 2011, an earthquake hit Japan which ultimately led to the meltdown of three reactors and the destruction of two others. Over the following year each of 50 reactors went down for refueling. The culture in Japan (not the law) leaves the decision of whether to restart a reactor each time it is shut down to the local municipality which surrounds the reactor.  None of the the local municipalities favored bring them back online.  In March of 2012, Japan went from being the third most nuclear powered nation in the world, to being nuclear free, joining Mexico, Italy, Belgium, Germany, Venezuela, Switzerland and the Netherlands

Fukushima Reactor 1 after meltdown

Tens of thousands of jobs in Japan are based on the nuclear industry, hundreds of billions of dollars of revenue are at stake if these reactors remain closed. Japan has an extremely powerful nuclear lobby which has long paid patronage, both legal and illegal, to politicians at every level. The nuclear village in Japan was not going down without a fight. And so an array of reasons why Japan needed nuclear power were paraded out.

One of the first reasons offered was that the Japanese way of life depended on nuclear power. With nearly 30% of its electricity coming from nuclear, and minimal idle surplus capacity available, this seemed like a strong argument.  Seemed like.  As reactor after reactor closed down, the government’s anemic energy saving program was still left with surplus power.

When the last reactor shut down, the utilities predicted rolling blackouts nationwide as Japan went into a near record hot summer. Only this did not happen. In May, pro-nuclear PM Noda was able to force one municipality to restart two reactors at Ohi. The political calculation was clear:  a prolonged period without reactors would convince the Japanese that they were unnecessary, so some reactors had to be turned on to prove otherwise.

This calculation backfired tremendously. After the earthquake and tsunami, it was wildly recognized that the existing nuclear regulator was held captive by the nuclear industry and had not been doing its job. The Japanese regulator NISA was found so corrupt and captured it was agreed to shutter it.   However the process of getting political agreement concerning a new nuclear regulator was torturous as the pro-nuclear legislators tried to give up as little ground as possible. This dragged out the formation of a new regulator for months and it resulted in these Ohi reactors being restarted without approval from a new regulator.  From this government arrogance the Hydrangea movement was born.

growing regular anti-nuclear protests in Japan

The Japanese culture is generally highly obedient. Protest are rare in the country.  Large protests hadn’t been seen since the 1970?s.  But the idea that reactors would be restarted, without a new regulator and before the analysis of the Fukushima meltdowns was completed by the parliament, infuriated a large part of the population. They felt Japan was returning to its old ways, ignoring the 100,000 people who had been displaced, many of them permanently, by the catastrophy. Protests started in front of the Prime Minister’s official residence every Friday.

These protest continue and are growing. The Hydrangea movement has brought tens and occasionally hundreds of thousands of protester each Friday at the PM official residence in Tokyo.  These protest included former PM Hatoyama in an unprecedented break with tradition.   Current PM Noda even broke with protocol to meet with representatives from the anti-nuclear movement, though the meeting was nearly useless.

The most powerful parliamentary commission (which had subpoena capacity) studying the meltdowns determined that the utility company, the regulators, and the government were all at fault for the accidents. The commission found that it was a profoundly man-made disaster — that could and should have been foreseen and prevented.  Surprisingly, the report criticized the national mindset in creating this event calling the meltdowns “Made in Japan.”  Unsurprisingly the recommendations of this commission were all about how to make the on-going nuclear infrastructure safer.

But in the face of this and other criticism the government set out teams to have public hearings. Three options were presented:  30% nuclear, 15% nuclear and 0% nuclear. The government hoped that they could get the reasonable Japanese to chose the middle option and reactors nationwide could start reopening. Yet, as more stories of graft and corruption became public, as more indications that the utility companies and regulators were aware that such accidents were possible, as stories of the suffering of the displaced people flooded the news, the willingness of the average Japanese citizen to return to a nuclear-dominated electricity sector waned.

The ten regional monopoly utilities, all of them nuclear, began to put forth new arguments. The most current?  That the utilities will go bankrupt if they don’t restart  the reactors. Billions in lost revenue will force these utilities out of business.  These arguments fall flat when compared to the 12 billion that the government already put into nationalizing TEPCO (the utility which owns Fukushima) and to the hundreds of billions being spent on environmental remediation and victim compensation.  You can’t say the problem is that the power sector has inadequate funds to step away from nuclear when these are some of the richest companies in the world.  And the government can soften the financial blow as it often does with these giants.

Now TEPCO is claiming it can not build renewables generation sources because it is out of money, but it can pay bonuses to its executives.  The other regional monopolies are claiming without nuclear revenues they are cash strapped.    Yet this same problem is not preventing them for lobbying for the completion of nuclear power plants which are under construction. This is, at this moment, where the debate is in Japan.

To quite some fanfare, PM Noda announced that Japan would implement the phase out of nuclear power at the end of the design life of the each of the current operational plants, thus the country would be nuclear free again in the late 2030?s.  Contrast this to Germany’s fast phase out of all 18 of its pre-Fukushima reactors by 2022, within a decade.

For the Nuclear Villages response, stay tuned for part 2 of this article.

The Hydrangea flower is the symbol of the Japanese anti-nuclear movement