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Parties should base nuclear policies on realism, not popular emotions
Publication Date : 26-11-2012
How should Japan achieve a stable supply of power, which is indispensable for people's livelihoods and economic growth? Energy policies will become a major issue in the House of Representatives election to be held December 16.
Nuclear power policies by the ruling and opposition parties have come under the spotlight due to the crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima No 1 nuclear power plant following the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami.
It will be difficult to resolve many issues facing Japan, a country poor in natural resources, if the nation is divided simply between two camps--those seeking the abandonment of nuclear power and those wanting to keep it. All parties should hold in-depth discussions on the issue from various points of view, ranging from the economy and employment to the global environment and nuclear nonproliferation.
The Fukushima crisis has resulted in the public becoming increasingly anxious over the safety of nuclear reactors. The government has to take all possible measures to boost their safety and prevent a similar crisis from occurring.
Considering that Japan's self-sufficiency in energy stands at just 4 per cent, it is unrealistic for the nation to immediately abandon nuclear power, which supplies about 30 per cent of the nation's electricity.
The nation's system for supplying electricity--often described as the "lifeblood of the economy"--would be weakened if the government gets emotionally carried away by attempts to ditch nuclear power generation. Such a stance could create problems for the nation's economy in the future.
In campaigning for the election, each party should be aware that Japan stands at a crossroads in making an important choice--so should voters in casting their ballots.
It is a cause of concern that so many parties advocate denuclearisation. We suspect they are just making policy promises that appeal to voters to win more support by taking advantage of people's anxiety over nuclear power generation.
DPJ's irresponsible pledge
When compiling its manifesto for the upcoming general election, the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) reportedly will include a target of "zero nuclear power plants" operating in the 2030s--a policy stated by the government's Innovative Strategy for Energy and the Environment. However, this strategy is flawed, because it fails to take into account the serious blow denuclearisation would have on the nation's economy, and it is troubling that the DPJ would base a campaign pledge on it.
Under the zero-nuclear power policy by the DPJ-led government, most nuclear power reactors' operations have remained suspended. Moreover, Japan's national wealth has been flowing out of the country at a rate of 3 trillion yen (US$36.44 billion) every year because of a surge of imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and other fuel at a time when power suppliers are walking on a tightrope by operating aging thermal power plants at full capacity.
Japan's industrial hollowing-out is accelerating as more and more companies move their factories overseas. This has had a serious impact on the nation's employment. However, the DPJ has done insufficient soul-searching over its own political missteps in the electricity field.
Shinzo Abe, president of the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), has criticised the DPJ as "really irresponsible" by proposing a zero-nuclear power policy. It is reasonable for the LDP--as a party aiming to return to power--to make clear in its campaign platform that an LDP government would take responsibility in reactivating nuclear reactors once their safety has been scientifically proved.
However, the LDP's election platform states that the nation's energy source structure for mid- and long terms should be mapped out in the next 10 years. This shows it badly lacks a sense of urgency.
The party must hammer out a clear-cut approach to effectively utilising nuclear power generation. At the same time, it is essential to study ways to adequately dispose of radioactive waste.
Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party), which showed how eager it was to form a "third political force" to take on the DPJ and the LDP when it merged with former Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara's Taiyo no To (The Sunrise Party), made the right decision by saying it would abandon its policy of "eliminating nuclear power generation altogether in the 2030s."
However, Ishin no Kai's new energy platform, which calls for nothing more than "building a new supply-demand framework of energy," is regrettably equivocal.
Renewable resources can't fill bill
Other parties, such as People's Life First and the Japanese Communist Party, have argued for the immediate or early cessation of the nation's nuclear power generation.
Foes of nuclear power generation have insisted this country's need for electricity can be met without nuclear power plants on the ground that there was no blackout during the peak power consumption period in summer. Their argument, however, ignores such adverse consequences as the decline in the nation's production and hikes in electricity rates.
The parties calling for the abandonment of nuclear power generation lack sincerity if they fail to explain to the voters the negative impacts that would accompany such a move.
As alternative sources of energy, most parties have stressed the importance of such renewable energy sources as solar power and wind power.
Although we would like to see the proliferation of such resources, renewable energy sources, with the exception of hydroelectric power generation, currently account for little more than 1 per cent of the country's entire electricity output. It is far too optimistic to believe renewable energy sources would grow into a major source of electricity large enough in the near future to replace nuclear power generation.
The dearth of electricity, at least for now, cannot help but be addressed by the augmentation of thermal power generation using such fuels as coal and LNG.
It is nothing but an expedient, opportunist line of argument to advocate the abandonment of nuclear power while failing to mention such environmental problems as increases in greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution due to an expansion of thermal power generation.
The lessons left behind by the two "oil shocks" in the 1970s and early 1980s, in which Japan, heavily dependent on oil for power generation, could have faced blackouts. It is imperative to secure a wide range of energy alternatives, including nuclear power generation.
Diplomatic, security ramifications
The zero-nuclear power policy of the government and the DPJ has puzzled the United States and European countries as it appears to contradict the government's stance of promoting at the same time the nation's nuclear fuel recycling programme.
Washington, for that matter, has expressed strong concern that impediments may arise to ensuring the peaceful use of nuclear energy and nuclear nonproliferation.
This is because spent nuclear fuel, if unused for power generation purposes after being reprocessed, would continue to be amassed, meaning that Japan's stockpile of plutonium, which can be diverted for the production of nuclear weapons, would keep increasing.
There could even be a possibility of this country losing both the special right to stockpile plutonium as stipulated by the Japan-US Nuclear Power Cooperation Agreement and the nation's status as a partner of the United States in its nuclear policy in Asia.
From the standpoint of the nation's diplomatic and security priorities, the irresponsible argument for eliminating nuclear power generation must be abandoned.