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Full-scale public discussion should be launched

September 30, 2012


Gov't must iron out inconsistencies in nuclear strategy through true public discussion



The government's Innovative Strategy for Energy and the Environment, which envisions an end to nuclear power by the 2030s, has now been compiled. However, the strategy's retention of the nuclear fuel cycle that has been a mainstay of the nation's energy policy to date has exposed inconsistencies, and it has drawn fire from both proponents and opponents of nuclear power.

The problems that the government shelved in the past as it advanced under the myth that nuclear power was safe have now erupted all at once. Rather than leaving the issue solely in the hands of nuclear power experts, politicians and bureaucrats, the government should take this opportunity to launch true, full-scale public discussion.

On Sept. 14, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda suggested that the government's Energy and Environment Council could revise the energy and environment strategy in the future, stating, "It's all the more irresponsible to make determined decisions when dealing with an uncertain future." The Cabinet decided against adopting the new strategy on Sept. 19, merely categorizing it as reference material. This has left its status enshrouded in uncertainty -- though it is supposed to be the backbone of the nation's energy policy.

In July and August, the government arranged "public discussion" on the nation's nuclear policy through public hearings and deliberative polling, asking residents for their opinions on the nation's future energy policy. In this discussion, public support for a zero nuclear power policy was predominant. In compiling the outcome of the discussion, State Minister for National Policy Motohisa Furukawa commented, "The public majority favors the realization of a society free from reliance on nuclear power plants."

In June the government outlined three options for the ratio of nuclear power generation to the total amount of electricity generated in 2030: zero percent, 15 percent, and 20-25 percent. For each of the options, it presented ratios of renewable energy and thermal power to total power generation, and probed the effects on the economy. Though it suggested that power costs could double under a zero nuclear power policy, many members of the public supported that option. Keio University professor Yasunori Sone, who headed the committee in charge of deliberative polling, said this suggests that people are prepared to shoulder the cost of implementing a zero-nuclear policy.

However, cost is not the only issue the public faces.

What is to become of the nuclear fuel cycle under which plutonium is extracted from spent nuclear fuel and used for fast-breeder reactors. The government decided that under a zero nuclear power option, it would directly dispose of spent nuclear fuel -- without reprocessing it. For the 15 percent and 20-25 percent options, it simply said it would handle the decision-making process in the event that either of those options was selected. In adopting such a stance, it has effectively removed the future picture of the nuclear fuel cycle from public debate.

A Cabinet Secretariat official explained that decisions on the future of the nuclear fuel cycle were not suited to public discussion, as there was a need to "carefully consider the relationship with local bodies" where nuclear fuel cycle facilities are located.

The cost of failing to hold in-depth debate on the nuclear fuel cycle surfaced during the compilation of the energy and environment strategy. A proposal from the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) compiled ahead of the formation of the new strategy set a target of zero dependence on nuclear power plants in the 2030s.

This provoked a backlash from the Aomori Prefectural Government and other local bodies that have accepted spent nuclear fuel on the premise of reprocessing it under the nuclear fuel cycle. The bodies suggested that if the cycle were abandoned, then they would send the spent nuclear fuel back where it came from. If that were to happen, the pools for spent nuclear fuel at the nation's nuclear power plants would quickly fill up, and the operation of nuclear plants would have to be halted before the 2030s.

On the other hand, if the reprocessing of spent fuel is allowed to continue under a zero nuclear policy, then Japan's stockpiles of plutonium will grow. As plutonium can be used in nuclear weapons, this could raise concerns in international society that Japan is intending to arm itself with nuclear weapons.

Attempts to balance the ideal of a zero nuclear society with the reality of nuclear waste that has no place to go have resulted in phrases in the energy and environment strategy and the government's statements since the adoption of the strategy becoming rife with inconsistencies. While stating that it will aim for zero reliance on nuclear power plants, the government maintains that it will continue to reprocess fuel -- a process based on the premise of operating nuclear power plants. Furthermore, if the rule of strictly applying a 40-year limitation on the operation of nuclear power plants is allowed to stand together with a zero nuclear power policy, one would expect the construction of nuclear plants to be out of the question. Nevertheless, Minister of Economy Trade and Industry Yukio Edano has permitted continued construction of nuclear power facilities that power companies have already started to build.

The reason many residents have sought a society free of nuclear power is that they distrust the government in its rush to restart nuclear power plants and create a new energy policy when the safety of nuclear power plants remains uncertain.

Nuclear disaster minister Goshi Hosono has stated that the newly formed Nuclear Regulation Authority will rebuild Japan's battered nuclear safety regulations, but this rebuilding is yet to come. In that case, it was unreasonable, one could say, for the government to go deciding on a future energy policy at this stage. Still, I hold hope that widespread public knowledge about the inconsistencies will lead us in the right direction.

During my coverage of the compilation process for the new strategy from April this year, I felt uneasy seeing the large number of politicians who trumpeted support for zero dependence on nuclear power without looking at the actual situation. I, too, have hoped to see reduced dependence on nuclear power. But for this to happen, we must persistently pursue innovation in renewable energy technology and methods to handle nuclear waste.

It is the role of politicians, while promoting ideals, to look squarely at the actual situation, ask the public about the issues, and then make policy decisions. I hope that the government's current floundering will produce a preface for searching out plausible paths to a society free from nuclear power. ("As I See It" by Hiroshi Hisata, Tokyo Business News Department)


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