Pro-nuclear bureaucrats back in the picture under Abe

The Liberal Democratic Party wasted little time restoring the influence of the pro-nuclear industry ministry to move away from the nuclear-free society envisioned by the previous government.

Soon after new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe established his Cabinet on Dec. 26, moves were quickly made that elated ministry officials who had been kept on the defensive since the March 2011 accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

Even before he was named prime minister, Abe indicated the direction he would take concerning the nation’s energy policy. And LDP members expressed confidence that the party’s landslide victory in the Dec. 16 Lower House election had given them the go-ahead from the public to pursue nuclear power generation.

On Dec. 21, Abe visited Yamaguchi Prefecture, which he represents, to pray at the graves of relatives, including his father, Shintaro, a former foreign minister.

At a news conference at the Yamaguchi prefectural government building, Abe said he would review the decision of the Democratic Party of Japan-led government to halt new construction of reactors, opening the door for the possible construction of a nuclear plant at Kaminoseki in the prefecture.

Standing by Abe’s side was Takaya Imai, a former deputy director-general of the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, which comes under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. Imai was an administrative aide during Abe’s first stint as prime minister.

A day after the LDP’s election victory, Imai was removed from the deputy director-general’s post and was appointed a policy aide to Abe, giving the ministry veteran greater influence over a much wider policy area.

When Naoto Kan was prime minister during the DPJ government, Imai was involved in exporting nuclear plant technology to Vietnam. When the administration of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda was moving toward resuming operations at the Oi nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture this past summer, Imai served as a liaison with local government officials.

METI officials chose Tadao Yanase, deputy director-general of the Economic and Industrial Policy Bureau, as administrative aide to Abe this time around. Yanase was involved in compiling a plan for the promotion of nuclear energy in 2006, when he headed the Nuclear Energy Policy Planning Division.

Because past LDP governments worked closely with the ministry to promote nuclear energy, the return to power by the LDP provides the opportunity for the new administration to again promote nuclear power generation.

One reason the LDP is easily overturning the DPJ’s nuclear policy is because the DPJ administration did not put much muscle behind its pronouncements. No Cabinet approval was given for seeking a nuclear-free society–and that objective was not clearly included in the new energy basic plan or any laws passed by DPJ administrations.

The LDP’s coalition agreement with New Komeito includes a reduced dependence on nuclear energy as much as possible. But there is no telling how long that pledge will stand up.

The DPJ government, which began discussing future nuclear policy in spring this year, was never really a strong advocate of a nuclear-free society.

At one time, a consensus was developing to reduce the ratio of nuclear energy generation to 15 percent from the approximately 25-percent level before the Fukushima nuclear accident. In May, Goshi Hosono, who was state minister in charge of handling the nuclear accident, said the 15-percent level would be one starting point for discussions.

The DPJ government only started mentioning a nuclear-free future after seeing public sentiment turn against nuclear power in light of the Fukushima accident.

At public hearings held in 11 locations around Japan this summer, about 70 percent of participants wanted a nuclear-free future. A deliberative opinion poll found close to half of participants in favor of such a future.

Weekly protests in front of the prime minister’s office drew thousands of citizens voicing their opposition to nuclear energy.

Although no Cabinet approval was given, the DPJ did include in its new energy strategy the goal of halting all nuclear reactor operations by the 2030s.

LDP officials say their election victory represented a change in public opinion.

“Rather than a nuclear-free nation, what was supported was a move to decide on the future of nuclear energy after discussing the issue for periods of between three to 10 years,” Shigeru Ishiba, the LDP secretary-general, said.

At his first news conference after becoming industry minister, Toshimitsu Motegi said he would review the DPJ proposal to end operations at all nuclear reactors by the 2030s. He said future political decisions would be made about whether to allow construction to start on nine planned reactors.

Abe, at his first news conference after becoming prime minister on Dec. 26, spent much of the time explaining his economic policies but made no mention of Japan’s nuclear policy.

Exit polls conducted by The Asahi Shimbun on Dec. 16 found that 78 percent of respondents favored either an immediate or gradual move toward a nuclear-free society, much larger than the 15 percent who opposed such moves.

Motegi and the LDP came under fire over the new administration’s nuclear policy on a Dec. 28 television program.

“The reason why God returned the LDP to control of government was because He wanted you to clean up the mess you made of nuclear policy,” singer Akihiro Miwa told the industry minister.

Having been exposed to radiation when the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945, Miwa criticized the Abe administration’s stance of seeking to resume operations at nuclear reactors before any decision had been made on the final disposal site for spent nuclear fuel.

However, Motegi did not back down.

“There already is spent nuclear fuel,” Motegi said. “That major problem will remain regardless of whether or not we resume operations at nuclear reactors.”

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