View from Japan: Japanese leaders should listen to true public opinion on nuclear energy use

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Editor’s note: this analysis was originally published by the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals and is reposted here with its permission.

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Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has announced a target of cutting Japan’s greenhouse gas emissions in fiscal 2030 by 46% from fiscal 2013. The conventional wisdom is that not only the use of existing nuclear power plants but also the construction of new and additional plants and the replacement of old reactors will be necessary to achieve this target. However, nuclear energy’s share of a target power mix for fiscal 2030 in the government’s Strategic Energy Plan now under review is reportedly expected to remain unchanged from the current target level.

Solar panels, wind and other variable renewable energy power generation must be backed up by nuclear power plants, if not by thermal power generation. In addition, solar panels and wind power generation facilities cause landscape destruction, landslides, fishery destruction and other problems. Given Japan’s natural conditions including frequent typhoon storms, Japan has little room to install more solar panels and wind mills.

Local Governments Support Nuclear Plant’s Restart

The central government seems hesitant about being clear in the utilization of nuclear power plants. Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Hiroshi Kajiyama and Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi, both of whom should take leadership on this matter, have made only vague remarks about nuclear energy. They may be reluctant because they fear backlash in public opinion. But the problem is what public opinion they should defer to.

Lack of political action may persist as long as politicians pay attention to nationwide public opinion polls conducted by major news media using leading questions. To break through this situation, politicians need to look to public opinion in local communities that are likely to cooperate with the utilization of nuclear power plants. Among them must be Fukui Prefecture that has accepted a number of nuclear plants. In Japan, with its indirect democracy, the most important public opinion is shown by election results, and remarks by governors, prefectural assemblies and mayors elected by voters could be deemed as reflecting popular will.

On April 23, the Fukui prefectural assembly passed an opinion in writing for restarting three nuclear reactors aged more than 40 years in the prefecture and voted down a resolution for more deliberation of the matter, effectively endorsing their restart. They are Unit 3 of Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Mihama Nuclear Power Station in Mihama Town and Units 1 and 2 of the same company’s Takahama Nuclear Power Station in Takahama Town.

In response to the opinion, Fukui Prefecture Governor Tatsuji Sugimoto, who had conditioned his consent to the restart on the central government’s clarification of its nuclear energy policy, held a meeting with Economy, Trade and Industry minister Kajiyama on April 27, where the minister assured that the central government would continually use nuclear energy into the future. On April 28, Sugimoto became the first prefectural governor in Japan to announce the restart of nuclear reactors first put into operation more than 40 years ago.

Mihama Mayor Hideki Toshima welcomed this decision as a significant move that would greatly contribute to promoting the nation’s energy policy. Takahama Mayor Yutaka Nose said he was relieved to hear the announcement as the four nuclear reactors (including Units 3 and 4 in operation) in Takahama will have a significant impact on the local economy and public finance.

Japanese Politicians Should Explain the Significance of Nuclear Plants

It is one-sided and discourteous to view local communities as having been tempted by local economic promotion measures into accepting troublesome facilities. As a Fukui Prefecture citizen, I would like to note that the local communities are proud of having cooperated willingly with the central government’s nuclear energy policy that is indispensable for Japan’s energy security, as indicated by Mayor Toshima.

National politicians must proudly explain the significance of nuclear power plants in response to cooperative communities calling for the central government’s clarification of its nuclear policy. Those failing to do so should be disqualified as politicians.

Yoichi Shimada is a Senior Fellow and Planning Committee member with the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals and a professor at Fukui Prefectural University

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