Will pro-nuclear Abe government overcome Japan's nuke fears?

Japan could restart its first two nuclear reactors next month after the nationwide shutdown in 2011 after the Fukushima disaster. But nearly 60 percent of Japanese oppose the restart.

Kyodo News/AP/File
As early as October, two reactors at the nuclear power plant complex in Sendai, Kagoshima Prefecture, southern Japan, could restart under tighter safety rules imposed after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Three years after the nuclear energy disaster at its Fukushima Daichi plant, Japan finds itself in a quandary: Its government wants to bring many units back on line after rigorous stress testing, but the public is largely opposed.

So who wins the nuclear-energy debate – government or the public? Does the dynamic operate differently when it's Japan instead of, say, Germany?

Japan's first test could come as early as next month. On Sept. 10, the nation's newly constituted Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) gave a preliminary recommendation that Kyusyu Electric Power could restart two of its reactors at the so-called Sendai nuclear energy facility. Those plants could get the go-ahead to rev back up as early as October, or perhaps early next year.

The current political reality, however, is that nearly 60 percent of Japanese oppose the restarting of the Sendai nuclear units, according to an Asahi Shimbun survey, versus only 23 percent who favor it. Those who oppose the start-ups say that the Japanese government has not “sufficiently” applied the lessons from the March 2011 crisis.

Technically, there's not much more Japan's NRA could do to reassure the population. Formed after Fukushima, it has made its monitors independent of the nuclear industry and has vowed to make sure Japan has the highest safety standards in the world, which include active measures to counter natural disaster.  In its evaluation of the Sendai facility, it reviewed more than 18,000 pages, held more than 60 public meetings, and made its evaluation public via the Internet.

“The nuclear industry, as a whole, has studied everything about Fukushima and how we could improve our safety," says Ron Kirk, former US Trade Representative under President Obama and co-chair of CASEnergy Coalition, a pro-nuclear advocacy group funded by the industry. “We have studied every angle you can imagine."

Such pledges will do little to reassure public opinion, given the magnitude of the Fukushima disaster, and its clumsy, protracted cleanup. The government of Shinzo Abe won't be able to make much headway anytime soon.

What could turn the tide is pocketbook pressure. Before the accident at Fukushima, Japan relied on nuclear to supply 30 percent of its electricity. Now, it has to rely on fossil fuels – specifically, imports of liquefied natural gas from around the globe. Japan has spent more than $65 billion on those LNG imports since 2012, says Deloitte Touch Tohmatsu Limited. Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry notes that residential and commercial customers have seen a rise in tariffs of nearly 20 percent and 28 percent, respectively.

Higher utility rates were a major factor in May, when Japan saw the fastest year-over-year rise in inflation in 32 years. And all that fossil fuel boosted Japan's carbon emissions nearly 3 percent from 2011 to 2012, the latest figures show.

Germany represents a different antinuclear dynamic. While Abe is pushing a resumption of nuclear, Angela Merkel’s government has closed eight of Germany's 17 nuclear plants and wants to close the other nine, insisting that renewable energy can make up the deficit.

Renewable energy has broad support among Germans. In a poll earlier this year, 56 percent of Germans said the nation's energy transition was “the right thing to do.”  That's down from 63 percent in 2011, the year of the Fukushima disaster, but still represents a solid majority (only 10 percent of Germans said it was the wrong thing to do). Both main political parties have embraced the policy.

The problem is that it looks very hard to carry out. In March 2011, Germany received 25 percent of its electricity from those 17 nuclear reactors; now, that's down to 18 percent. Green energy cannot fill that gap quickly. Instead, as the World Nuclear Association points out, Germany is turning to coal. Coal currently produces half of Germany’s electricity, up from 43 percent in 2010. In trying to go green, Germany is embracing black.

And as in Japan, it's a costly transition: More than $1 trillion over a decade, which is paid for in large part by adding fees to consumers’ bills. There are also higher energy taxes and an estimated $71 billion in lost exports during the past six years due to high energy prices charged to industry. At present, green energy accounts for a quarter of Germany's electricity. The aim is to see it reach 40 percent when the country’s nuclear plants are totally phased out. Germany hopes that green energy will equate to 80 percent of the generation portfolio by 2050.

While green energy will pick up some slack, Germany will still need to import power from Poland, the Czech Republic, and France. It will also have to build more coal and natural gas plants. Despite this, Germany’s ruling party says that it will uphold its obligation under global climate change treaties to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2020.

The obstacles to fulfilling Germany's energy plan keep mounting. Throw in the Ukraine crisis and the implicit threat of a cutoff of Russian energy, which accounts for 30 percent of Germany's energy imports, and it's not hard to envision a shift in German priorities from renewable energy to energy security. 

Existing nuclear plants could greatly ease all these concerns. Before it can happen, however, the nuclear power industry will have to regain public trust in Germany, Japan, and around the world.

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