Four reasons Japan still hasn’t broken its nuclear addiction

March 11, 2013

Two years after the meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, a clear majority of Japanese people (73 percent, according to a recent Yomiuri Shimbun poll) opposes the country’s use of nuclear power.

But, politically, that sentiment has so far proven more negligible than powerful. No Japanese politician yet has capitalized on the anti-nuclear sentiment. And just last December, in the first major election since the Fukushima crisis, Japanese voters returned to power the Liberal Democratic Party, a traditional pro-nuclear group that had largely engineered the nation’s atomic reliance.

There are several reasons why the anti-nuke group punches below its weight, some interrelated. But here’s a list of the top factors:

1. Voters still care most about the economy 

When an economy is foundering, it’s almost always the top election issue — no matter what else is going on. An Asahi poll showed that 48 percent of voters in Japan put the economy as their No. 1 concern for the December 2012 elections, well ahead of issues such as energy and security. The LDP won in part because of a relatively fresh plan (of monetary easing and fiscal stimulus) to tackle a two-decade period of deflation.

For the anti-nuke crowd, voter emphasis on the economy is especially challenging, because growth is at odds with a phase-out, according to economic data from four separate institutes used by the government. Those institutes tried to model scenarios in which, one, Japan in 2030 relied on nuclear power for 25 percent of its energy and, two, Japan in 2030 was nuclear free. The economy of a nuclear-reliant Japan would be somewhere between 1 to 3.5 percent larger than that of a non-nuclear Japan, the institutes said.

2. The pro-nuclear crowd remains powerful

The group that supports nuclear power in Japan is significant — and hard for any politician to overlook. It includes energy companies that operate plants; reactor manufacturers such as Toshiba and Mitsubishi; corporations that view nuclear power as an essential cheap source for their domestic factories; banks that hold loans from utility companies; and media outlets that depend on any of the above for advertising.

3. Anti-nuclear factions are fighting among themselves

Those who oppose nuclear power don’t always consider themselves on the same page. Some want Japan to quit cold turkey. Others prefer a gradual phase-out, where reactors are used as a stopgap until Japan can find alternatives. This difference in opinions has made it hard for politicians to win over the entire crowd at once.

“So it’s difficult for the anti-nuclear group to unite and have a voice,” said Yukio Edano, who served as a cabinet member during the crisis and the energy minister shortly after. This stands in contrast to the pro-nuclear crowd, Edano noted, which has proven politically cohesive.

4. The right politician hasn’t yet come along

Naoto Kan tried to lead Japan out of the nuclear power business — but by the time he did, he was already deeply unpopular and had pledged to eventually step down as prime minister. In the run-up to the 2012 lower house election, several anti-nuclear parties popped up, but they were either poorly financed, disorganized, or simply ill-conceived. The Tomorrow Party of Japan, for instance, laid out a plan to decommission all reactors (over 10 years) just two weeks before the election. Trying to broaden its support, the party joined hands with a divisive pork barrel politician, Ichiro Ozawa, who along with his supporters then bolted again after the election. That left the Tomorrow Party with one Diet seat.

Chico Harlan covers personal economics as part of The Post's financial team.
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Max Fisher · March 11, 2013