Japan's leaders give up on quitting nuclear power

Although Japan's 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster set much of the public against nuclear power, politicians are not convinced.

Koji Sasahara/AP
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, pictured here, has seen his popularity tumble.

In mid-September, Japan said it would close all 50 of its nuclear reactors by "the end of the 2030s." Days later, the administration backtracked in the face of opposition from the main business lobby and some senior lawmakers in Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's own Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).

Although the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster has profoundly increased the public's antipathy toward nuclear power, politicians have yet to be convinced. "The majority of Japanese people are now against nuclear power, but none of the major political parties are listening to them," says Hisayo Takada, a Greenpeace Japan energy campaigner.

What happened? Mr. Noda's approval ratings plummeted below 20 percent, and he looks certain to lose the election his party must call by September 2013, so he's doing what he can to garner lobby support. 

The most likely outcome is a coalition government led by the opposition Liberal Democratic Party of Japan, which ruled the country for about half a century until 2009. The LDP oversaw Japan's emergence as an economic superpower and a nuclear-dependent nation, developing close ties to big business and nuclear industry. Though the LDP may be somewhat more nuclear-friendly than the current DPJ government, it might not matter to Japan's energy mix which party is in power, says Jun Okumura, senior political analyst at the Eurasia Group.

"I see all of Japan's reactors, except those that are on fault lines, coming back on line over the next few years," says Mr. Okumura. "Construction will resume on the two reactors that are in the process of being built." So far, only two of Japan's reactors have been restarted after being shut down for stress tests in the wake of the Fukushima crisis.

The drastic reduction in nuclear power generation has resulted in huge imports of fossil fuels, contributing to the country's biggest trade deficits in decades.

The government also estimates that investment in the technology required to make up the nuclear shortfall would require some $627 billion and a near-doubling of average monthly household fuel bills, to $404. With public finances creaking and the economy struggling to achieve sustainable growth, the political will to make Japan nuclear-free will be hard to generate anytime soon.

If Japan's people truly want to see a change in nuclear policy, electing politicians who share those views may be the only option. Until now, the only antinuclear platforms have been those of the small Socialist and Communist parties. With the formation this July of a third party, the Green Party, voters do have another choice in the upcoming election.

Ultimately, says Ms. Takada, echoing the concerns of many Japanese, "There have been more than 1,000 earthquakes of magnitude 3 or more in Japan in the last year; nuclear power can't be safe in that situation."

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