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All political parties must show their hand clearly

November 23, 2012


Editorial: Parties must show voting public concrete vision for Japan's energy future



With the future of Japanese society resting largely on whether or not nuclear power is abandoned, nuclear and energy policy is a major point of controversy in the upcoming general election.

Even now, 20 months after the outbreak of the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), at least 160,000 people are living as evacuees. Workers at the site continue their efforts to bring the crisis under control, with no end in sight. Decontamination of areas tainted by radiation is far from completion, and low-level radiation exposure among residents is a constant concern.

Building additional nuclear reactors is out of the question, now that the potential for such massive disasters has become obvious. Even if we approve the reactivation of existing reactors for the time being -- given that they clear strict risk evaluations -- the only choice for Japan, now that it's clear how much the dangers posed by seismic activity had been underestimated, is to start shutting reactors down.

It is our hope that each party will propose responsible energy policies that take this reality into consideration.

The ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) says the goal of phasing out nuclear power by the 2030s will be incorporated into its manifesto. However, the party's declaration lacks persuasiveness as it has thus far failed to reveal a clear roadmap toward achieving that goal. Some doubt the party's sincerity after the Noda Cabinet chose not to endorse the policy.

We have continued to propose that each nuclear reactor should be assessed and ranked for decommissioning priority based on set criteria. We want to see a schedule for phasing out nuclear power that includes the implementation of such methods. This is a task that should be carried out not just by the DPJ but also by other parties, such as New Komeito, that are calling for the elimination of nuclear power.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) says in its campaign platform that it will decide on an optimal combination of energy sources for Japan within the next 10 years. This represents a mere postponement of a real decision, and does not show whether the party is aiming for the abandonment of nuclear power or continued adherence to old policy.

The ongoing nuclear disaster broke out against a backdrop of loose safety regulations and the dominance of the "nuclear village" -- referring to the cozy ties between pro-nuclear politicians, bureaucrats, academics and industry -- and the LDP bears some responsibility for allowing it all to go unchecked. With that in mind, the party should demonstrate a clear stand on nuclear energy.

The Japan Restoration Party has backed off its original anti-nuclear stance, and now pledges to "create rules, including safety standards." It's only natural that voters view the party as having sacrificed its nuclear policy in order to join hands with pro-nuclear advocate and former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara. Is there any reason voters should put their support behind such flip-flopping?

Whether the decision is made to abolish nuclear power or to keep it, many pending issues remain.

One is the problem of spent nuclear fuel. The DPJ has contradicted itself by calling for a zero-nuclear policy on the one hand, while on the other making clear its intention to continue the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. This is likely an attempt by the party to avoid stepping on the toes of municipalities hosting nuclear facilities and the U.S., with whom Japan's relationship comes deeply laced with security issues.

It's not yet clear how the DPJ will incorporate its stance on the nuclear fuel cycle into its campaign manifesto, but it must stick to a clear anti- or pro-nuclear position. Other parties, such as the LDP, should also offer specific party lines in order to allow for a reexamination of policies that were heretofore in place as a result of real decisions being postponed.

Another major issue in the election will be how each party positions the national government's responsibility for nuclear power.

First, there is the question of additional assistance for the rehabilitation of TEPCO. The utility, which under current law is required to take sole responsibility for the payment of disaster damages, has requested additional financial assistance from the government, saying that compensation amounts are too heavy for one private company to bear.

If TEPCO cannot cover the cost of damages through its efforts alone, the national government -- which bears responsibility for having promoted nuclear power as a national policy -- must shoulder some of the burden. The national government footing some of the cost, however, means that the Japanese public is footing the cost. As such, the public will not approve of an easy bailout. We want to hear each party's views on the national government's share of responsibility that incorporate what has been learned from past nuclear policy.

We must also take a close look at parties' attitudes toward electric power system reform, considering how much of an impact it would have on people's lives.

In order to reduce Japan's dependence on nuclear power, alternative sources of energy must be secured. High hopes have been pinned on renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power in the mid to long term. However, until the use of such power sources becomes widespread, we must rely mainly on thermal power generation, which comes with high fuel costs.

Both renewable and thermal energy will result in mounting costs. If those costs are directly tacked on to electricity costs, not only will it increase the burden on household finances, there's a chance it could hurt the competitive edge of Japanese manufacturing in the international market.

To keep power costs low, it is essential to implement reforms that encourage new companies to enter the electricity business and promote competition among utility giants.

The DPJ administration has announced its plans to work toward the liberalization of electricity retail sales, including power for private households, and the separation of generation from distribution. It's a valuable policy line that would promote competition. Meanwhile, it's unclear if the LDP, which in the past opposed liberalized retail sales of electricity, is prepared to implement reform.

Nuclear and energy policy are directly linked to issues such as the stable supply of power, burden of cost and energy security, and have a great impact on the lives of Japanese citizens. Are the various parties aspiring to a shift toward a low-energy society, or a return to life before the nuclear disaster? They must reveal the future they envision and the steps to get there for the public to decide for themselves.

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