Maybe Japan is not turning away from nuclear energy after all. In what must be seen as an unexpected turn of events, Prime Minister Noda and his Cabinet have approved the Diet’s new energy policy, but fell short of supporting full nuclear abandonment in the 2030s. Today’s updates will focus on this stunning political reversal and cover some of the influences that may have brought it about.

  • The Japanese government has officially backtracked on going nuclear-free by refusing to give cabinet approval of a nuclear energy phase-out by 2040. Japan’s economy minister Motohisa Furukawa said the Cabinet has decided to take the nuclear-free plan “into consideration” when formulating the country’s long-term energy policy, rather than giving the entire plan formal Cabinet approval, “In the past, the Cabinet approved a policy in a similar way. We’ve never changed the direction of the new strategy.” He also said it is too early to judge whether a nuclear phase-out is even possible. The Cabinet’s written statement includes that Japan will “put the strategy into practice in a flexible manner while constantly verifying and reviewing it” and “hold responsible discussions on the strategy with local governments hosting nuclear plants as well as the international community to win understanding from the public.” Trade Minister Yukio Edano added his opinion to the mix, “…whether we can become nuclear free by the 2030s is not something to be achieved only with a decision by policy makers. It also depends on the will of (electricity) users, technological innovation and the environment for energy internationally in the next decade or two.” It seems that Noda’s cabinet has responded to severe international pressures to back off the Diet’s firm no-nukes-by-2040 policy proposal. Some Japanese business leaders were so upset that they threatened to resign. The cabinet decision also resolves the appearance of contradiction between recent Tokyo announcements. First, there was the report that the Diet had proposed a firm no-nukes policy that would end all nuclear power generation by 2040, disallow the building of new nukes and not allow a nuke to operate more than 40 years. Next, Tokyo announced they were not considering closure of the nation’s nuclear fuel recycling program, which was widely touted to be in conflict with the Diet’s proposal. If there would be no nukes running in Japan, there would be no demand for recycled fuels. In addition, Monday’s announcement that the completion of three partially-built nukes would be allowed, each of which will operate well into the 2050s. This seemed to contradict the Diet view that no new nukes would be built. It now seems that Noda’s cabinet never planned on following the Diet’s proposal carte blanche, keeping alive the option of flexibility with respect to Japan’s energy future. Finance Minister Jun Azumi told a separate news conference that there needed to be flexibility in the policy to avoid putting an undue burden on the public. The reversal of the Diet’s policy proposal is likely to invite charges that Noda is bowing to pressure from a pro-nuclear business lobby. (News on Japan; Mainichi Shimbun; Japan Today)
  • Japan’s primary business leaders harshly criticized Tokyo’s no-nukes policy in a joint press conference, which surely contributed to today’s cabinet-level retraction. It is rare for leaders of the three business groups, including the Japan Business Federation, to mutually oppose a specific government policy. They warned that such a move will seriously damage Japan’s economic condition. They fear it will be difficult to keep Japanese companies from moving overseas since the nuke phase-out will lead to higher electricity prices, estimated to double over the next two decades. They also say they feel the target was set without thorough study of it’s possible impact on Japan and the international business community. (Kyodo News)
  • Many international critics doubted that Tokyo’s no-nukes policy was actually going to happen. They pointed to the possibility that the announcement to turn away from nuclear energy might have been made less out of conviction and more toward garnering votes in upcoming national elections. Although this summer’s voluntary energy conservation program’s was a success, it would have been be difficult to maintain and keep Japan competitive in the world market. Many critics said there are not enough financial resources to make the transition from nuclear to renewable energy sources by the 2030s. The German newspaper “Suddeutsche Zeitung” writes, “The Japanese nuclear lobby is just buying time until the uproar caused by the nuclear meltdown has subsided before it convinces the government to revise its decision.” (News on Japan)
  • One of the Diet’s no-nukes proposals seems to have been confirmed – there will be a firm 40 year limit on nuclear power plant operation. Tokyo has decided to decommission three nuclear reactors at Japan Atomic Power Co.’s Tsuruga power plant and Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Mihama power plant. All three are already over the age of 40. “On the principle [of the 40-year rule], we’re going to decommission [the reactors],” Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said Tuesday. There seems to be no contingencies for restarting the three specified nukes, regardless of their present state of soundness and safety. Fujimura also indicated the government would approve resuming construction of the three new nukes in Fukui Prefecture. (Yomiuri Shimbun)
  • The new Nuclear Regulatory Authority of Japan has finally become a reality. Prime Minister Noda approved the appointment of five experts to the Agency, headed by former Japan Atomic Energy Commission Chair Shunichi Tanaka. The creation of the NRA ends the multiple-agency regulatory system of Japan, with NISA formerly under the umbrella of the Economy Ministry and the NSC under the Prime Minister’s cabinet. It also effectively terminates what has been alleged to be a too-close relationship between the regulators and the regulated. The government says the independence of the NRA is guaranteed by giving it a status similar to the country’s antimonopoly watchdog, the Japan Fair Trade Commission. However, antinuclear voices across Japan say the NRA cannot be trusted to enforce nuclear safety as long as it is populated by people who have a professional background in nuclear power. Dissenting Diet lawmakers say installation of a nuclear insider to head the organization is a case of business as usual. The new NRA’s first order of business is getting Japan’s nukes restarted, possibly by the end of 2012. (Japan Today)
  • Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) held its Final meeting on Tuesday, ahead of the initiation of the new Nuclear Regulatory Authority. The NSC was established in 1978 after a radiation release from Japan’s first nuclear powered ship, Mutsu, in 1974. NSC Chair Haruki Madrame said he regrets the commission was unprepared for the Fukushima accident and did little to enforce increased tsunami protection for nukes prior to 3/11/11. However, he stresses he and his staff have worked almost non-stop to establish why Fukushima happened. He added that the new regulatory body should not be swayed by previous safety routines. They should establish a program of constant examination and review of nuclear safety. (NHK World) At the same time as the NSC’s last meeting, Tepco released pictures of a visit to F. Daiichi by the five experts named to the new Nuclear Regulatory Commission. All pictures are taken during their tour and briefing inside the Technical Support Center where emergency decision-making teams have met and coordinated recovery efforts for the past 18 months. Here’s the link for the photos…