Japan unplugged – Rethinking nuclear energy in Japan

Naoto Kan seeks to tap into the nation’s energy-saving mood

FOR the past few years the zeitgeist in Japan has been about “grass-eating men”, those young herbivores who eschew the salaryman’s role of their fathers and prefer shopping to sex. Two months after nuclear disaster struck, the buzzword has become setsuden, or energy saving. With power in Tokyo in short supply, people take pride in walking up stairs from the underground because the escalators are off. Summer dress codes in government and other offices have begun a month early to save on air conditioning. Unusually for a Japanese politician, Naoto Kan, the embattled prime minister, has even caught the national mood.

On the back foot since the March 11th quake and tsunami, Mr Kan shocked the nuclear industry on May 6th when he called for the temporary closure of Hamaoka nuclear-power plant, an ageing facility on a tectonic fault line that would pose a tremendous risk for Tokyo if it suffered the same fate as the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant. After three days of prevarication, Chubu Electric, the plant’s operator, reluctantly agreed to a shutdown.

The head of Japan’s business lobby called Mr Kan’s decision a piece of theatre that would harm industry nearby, including factories run by Honda and Toyota. Others considered it astute. The prime minister appeared to be rediscovering his roots in civic activism.

On May 10th Mr Kan shocked the nuclear tribe again by announcing his intention to rewrite from scratch a blueprint, scarcely a year old, that planned roughly to double nuclear power’s contribution, accounting for half of Japan’s energy mix by 2030. His remarks were unscripted and gave no indication he wanted nuclear energy to be abandoned altogether. Further, last year’s plan was unfeasibly lofty. Still, in calling on Japan to focus more on renewable energy, the government has demoted nuclear energy as its priority, says Andrew DeWit of Tokyo’s Rikkyo University.

It is unclear what will replace it, however. Thanks to post-earthquake shutdowns, the nuclear fleet is operating at just 44% of capacity. Brownouts this summer might weaken people’s anti-nuclear zeal. Winning support for renewable energy will be hard after years of carpet bombing by the pro-nuclear lobby. It has even portrayed geothermal energy in this volcanic land as a threat, since it might pollute the country’s beloved onsen, or hot springs. But without renewables, Japan’s carbon footprint looks set to grow.

Mr Kan is clear that nuclear power should remain a part of Japan’s energy mix, but that it should be safer, better regulated and part of a more imaginative energy policy. For that, though, he must break the utilities’ suffocating regional monopolies. So far, he has not sounded nearly bold enough for that.

The Economist


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