The Cabinet hits the brakes on a formal policy to phase out all nuclear reactors in 30 years.

Hiromasa Yonekura, Chairman
of the Keidanren business lobby (L)
in happier days shaking hands with
Japan Prime MInister Yoshihiko Noda (R)
at a Asian trade conference in 2011

The Japanese government bowed to pressure from the country’s largest business firms to keep the reactors running.  While only two have been restarted this year, the clear implication is that the rest need to come online and soon.

Hiromasa Yonekura, chairman of Japan’s largest business lobby, Keidanren, said this week that the business community cannot accept the zero option strategy.

He said the lobby “wants a responsible energy policy.”

One of the key reasons may be the failure of Japan’s export driven economy to produce positive numbers. Japan posted a trade deficit in August of $7.7 billion only slightly smaller than the deficit of $9.6 billion a year ago. At market close on Friday Sept 21 the Yen traded at ¥78.15 against the U.S. dollar.

Japan’s heavy industries produce earnings that pay for the imports of food and fuel since the country is less than 50% self-sufficient in terms of agriculture and has few local fossil resources. Since shutting down all of its reactors, Japan’s imports of crude oil and liquefied natural gas have skyrocketed contributing to the balance of trade deficit.

What happened in the Japanese cabinet is a major loss of face for Prime Minister Noda. Energy Minister Motohisa Furukawa said in an official press conference that the cabinet had decided to reign in Noda’s plan to shut down all of the nation’s nuclear reactors over the next 30 years.

Instead, he said the cabinet “would take his policy into consideration” when formulating a long-term program. Translated from the euphemistic language of Japanese politics that comes out that the likelihood of the nuclear phase out policy being adopted has the same chance as a snowball in hell.

Noda had announced the plan after acknowledging that over 70% of Japanese voters oppose long-term investments in nuclear energy. His announcement was seen as being politically expedient since it has numerous loopholes and caveats.

Apparently, these exceptions were not enough for the major industrial members of the Keidanren who have been threatening to take their manufacturing operations offshore if the reactors are not kept running. Prior to the Fukushima disaster in March 2011, Japan got 30% of its electricity from 54 reactors and had plans to increase that number to 50%.

The head of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce said in the joint press conference with the Keidanren that the 2030 deadline “was not a viable option in the first place.”

In addition to the business federations, provincial officials in prefectures where the reactors are located have objected to the loss of tax revenue and payroll from jobs that would result from closing the power stations. Additionally, they objected to the decommission plans that would keep spent fuel at the reactor sites for decades after the units shut down.

New nuclear regulatory agency starts up

Shunichi Tanaka, Chief of the
Nuclear Regulatory Authority

Amid immediate criticism from anti-nuclear groups that it is not independent, the new Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) began operations with five members headed by a 67-year old former executive of the Japan Atomic Energy Agency.  

Shunichi Tanaka will head with organization with four others with technical backgrounds. The former Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), which was discredited for its poor performance during the Fukushima crisis, was staffed with career bureaucrats.

Tanaka’s prior professional work with a pro-nuclear organization raised fears among anti-nuclear groups that the new regulatory agency would be no better than the last one. However, NISA was captured by business groups being embedded in METI, the government’s trade agency. The NRA is attached to the government’s environmental agency to put distance between it and industry influence.

Three for three
While the cabinet was bowing to pressure from business groups over the zero option for nuclear energy, the government also initiated what looks like a swap of new lamps for old. It said it would decommission three reactors in the Fukui Prefecture, one owned by Tsuruga Power and two owned by Kansai Electric. All three are more than 40 years old. The units are Tsuruga #1 and Mihama Units #1 & 2 all of which began operation in 1970.

The government said it was strictly adhering to PM Noda’s policy to close reactors after 40 years of operation though the policy has a loophole to allow a license extension of another 20 years following a safety analysis. Over the next six years another five reactors will pass the 40 year mark.

At the same time the government said that reactors already under construction will be completed, says Yukio Edano, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry trade minister. They are the No. 3 reactor at the Shimane plant (94- percent complete) in Matsue, capital of the Shimane Prefecture, which is operated by Chugoku Electric; a reactor at the Oma plant (38 percent complete) in Aomori Prefecture, which is operated by Electric Power Development; and, No. 1 reactor (10 percent complete) at the Higashidori plant also in Aomori Prefecture.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fukimura said the government would approve continued construction of these power stations refusing to take back permits or approval of building plans for them.