After earthquake, Japan can’t agree on the future of nuclear power

TOKYO — The hulking system that once guided Japan’s pro-nuclear-power stance worked just fine when everybody moved in lock step. But in the wake of a nuclear accident that changed the way this country thinks about energy, the system has proved ill-suited for resolving conflict. Its very size and complexity have become a problem.

Nearly a year after the triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi facility, Japanese decision-makers cannot agree on how to safeguard their reactors against future disasters, or even whether to operate them at all.

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Nuclear reactors staying idle
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Nuclear reactors staying idle

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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.

But some local governors, and some members of key nuclear panels in Tokyo, fear that the government is cutting corners, and they note its traditional coziness with the nuclear industry. They want a revised set of safety standards that will be determined later this summer, after the government finalizes a report about the cause of the Fukushima disaster.

With their reactors largely idled, Japan’s nuclear companies, a collection of regional monopolies, have seen their values drop by as much as 50 percent. Some have been forced to fire up old thermal plants, raising the possibility of higher electricity bills. In addition, those companies have been unable to map out long-term strategies, uncertain whether to count on their nuclear reactors or push for alternatives, such as renewables or liquefied natural gas.

By the end of the summer, a 25-person panel — composed of economists, professors and other outside experts — plans to draft Japan’s new “Basic Energy Plan.” But that plan must then be approved by a divided parliament that has struggled to cooperate on far less controversial issues, such as disaster reconstruction.

Meanwhile, power company employees are racing to reassure Japanese that plants are safe and necessary. In recent weeks, officials from the Kansai Electric Power Co. (Kepco), Japan’s largest nuclear operator, have gone door to door in towns that host its nuclear plants, conducting polls and answering questions.

The Kansai region is Japan’s second-largest industrial area, and in normal times, its most nuclear-reliant. Until last year, a band of 11 nuclear reactors — north of the major cities Osaka and Kyoto — supplied almost 50 percent of the region’s power. Now, only one of those reactors is running.

Obstacles to a restart

In this region, one gets a glimpse of the obstacles Kepco must overcome.

The governor in the prefecture that is home to the company’s reactors says stress tests alone are not enough to prove their safety. The popular anti-nuclear mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, elected in November, wants to break up Kepco’s regional monopoly; his city is the firm’s largest shareholder, and Hashimoto is trying to rally support from other shareholders to pressure the company out of the nuclear power business.

Anti-nuclear groups in Osaka have gathered tens of thousands of signatures, raising the possibility of a referendum on atomic power. And last week, a nuclear safety agency meeting to discuss a restart at two Kansai reactors — Units 3 and 4 at the Ohi plant — was delayed for more than 31 / 2 hours because of protesters. Once the meeting got underway, the agency approved stress tests, a key step in the government’s authorization to restart the reactors.

Closer to the nuclear plants, some feel a growing urgency. In Mihama, a three-reactor plant hugs the craggy shoreline. Its final unit shut down for inspection in December, meaning that the facility, for the first time in four decades, is producing no power. Within several months, the town will feel the economic pinch, as fewer workers draw salaries from the plant, Mayor Jitaro Yamaguchi said.

Yamaguchi faces a delicate balance. For economic reasons, his town needs the plant. But he also wants assurances that it is safe, and he hears from residents who say that stress tests alone won’t suffice.

So late last week, Yamaguchi took a four-hour train ride to Tokyo for a meeting with nuclear officials in the cabinet. His message: Create some new safety measures, and please hurry.

“They need to expedite the process,” Yamaguchi said. “They’ve been really slow. Really, really slow.”

Special correspondent Ayako Mie contributed to this report.

 
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