Some experts say this indecision reflects the Japanese tendency to search for, and sometimes depend on, consensus — even when none is likely to emerge. The nation’s system for nuclear decision-making requires the agreement of thousands of officials. Most bureaucrats and politicians in Tokyo want Japan to recommit to nuclear power, but they have been thwarted by a powerful minority — reformists and regional governors.
The stalemate comes with heavy consequences, especially as reactors are idled, leading to record financial losses for major power companies and economy-stunting electricity shortages in manufacturing hubs such as Tokyo and Osaka.
Those shortages are likely to mount, as more reactors are shut down for required maintenance. After the shutdown Wednesday of Unit 5 at the Kashiwazaki Kariwa plant in northwestern Japan, the country is now operating just four of its 54 reactors. By the end of April, those last reactors are due to be idled for testing, and Japan, once the world’s third-largest nuclear consumer, could be nuclear-free, if it is unable to win approval from local communities to restart the idled units.
For decades, Japan’s nuclear policies received little public scrutiny and generated little opposition. The country established an elaborate network of hand-holding, with Tokyo passing subsidies to host communities and utility companies forming de facto partnerships with nuclear manufacturing firms such as Toshiba, Hitachi and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.
Since the March 11 accident, just enough has changed to stall that cooperation. Two-thirds of Japanese oppose atomic power. Politicians in areas that host nuclear plants are rethinking the facilities; they hold veto power over any restart. A few vocal skeptics have emerged in the government, and in the aftermath of the accident, Japan has created at least a dozen commissions and task forces for energy-related issues.
The broad attempt to seek opinion might sound like a welcome change, but according to some panel members, it leaves Japan with a system that impedes reform.
“Oh, there are so many panels,” said Tatsuo Hatta, an economist who sits on three of them. “I’m sorry it’s so complicated.”
A debate over safety
The most immediate question is whether to restart the reactors, which once supplied almost a third of Japan’s power. The debate comes down to how, or whether, the country can guarantee their safety.
As utility company executives lobby for a quick restart, Japan’s nuclear safety agency says “stress tests” — in which computers simulate a reactor’s response to earthquakes and tsunamis — will be enough to assess the risks. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said last month that stress tests were a key step in confirming the safety of the power stations.