All 54 of the country’s nuclear reactors were deactivated following the Fukushima crisis of March 2011, but Noda now insists that restarting the reactors is both imperative and safe. The reactors are deemed necessary for the maintenance of the country’s overall economy, especially during the traditional peak in energy use during the hot summer months. Reactors at the Ohi plant in the central Fukui prefecture are expected to be restarted on July 1st.
The Prime Minister’s announcement has been met with widespread public discontent. On June 29th, about 10,000 protestors gathered outside Noda’s office. Although public approval is not needed to restart the reactors, Oda’s uncharacteristic television appearance was no doubt intended to gain popular support. During the ten-minute speech, he asked the Japanese people to harness their fear in the face of disaster in order to maintain their standard of living. Japanese attitudes towards nuclear energy, however, remain hardened since the meltdowns at the Fukushima power plant, which saw the worst nuclear crisis since the Chernobyl disaster. When Japan’s last reactor was turned off in May, thousands took to the streets in celebration. Their victory, however, has been short-lived.
Public concerns are well founded; Japan is extremely prone to earthquakes and security improvements in nuclear plants remain hazy. A recent investigation has shown there is a 70% chance of a magnitude-7 earthquake striking the Tokyo metropolitan area within the next four years, and a 98% chance over the next thirty years. The earthquake in March 2011 that caused the Fukushima crisis was a magnitude-9. Safety improvements also remain inadequate due to conflicts between the government and the nation’s nuclear utilities over which safety enhancements should be implemented first - and how quickly. In the best scenario, security updates could take until 2015. Security improvements are constricted by the state-dependent nature of the Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency, which currently lies within the trade ministry. Opposition parties fear that Noda could use the agency as cover in the official re-opening of the reactors. The creation of the agency has thus been slow due to requests to make it more independent than originally proposed. Demands include legal guarantees and independence in staffing, budget and regulatory powers.
Before announcing the re-opening of the Ohi plant, the Prime Minister also met with the minister of economy, the minister in charge of the nuclear accident at Fukushima, and the chief cabinet secretary. The authorization of the local governor - the only one remaining in order to secure the re-start of the reactors - was obtained in mid-June. The Governor of the Fukui prefecture, Kazumasa Nishikawa, agreed to re-open the plant because, as he told reporters, he was both ‘assured of the government’s safety efforts’ and is determined to ‘help stabilise livelihoods and industry’.
The unanticipated shutdown of Japan’s nuclear power plants has indeed caused an energy shortage and the country’s largest trade deficit in three decades. So far, Japan’s energy demand has been met by imports of fossil fuels and other energy sources. According to Noda, however this import solution is no longer sustainable due to the energy demands of a sweltering summer. High-profile politician Toru Hasimoto, mayor of Osaka, says he supports turning on the reactors for the summer months only.
Mr Noda, on the other hand, not only sees the opening of the reactors as crucial for the summer, but for the long-term economic well-being of Japan. The re-opening of power plants would help stimulate employment, large corporations, and businesses. Yukio Edano, spokesman for former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, now endorses re-opening the plants due to energy shortages suffered by Japan’s major corporations. If the reactors were left offline, warns Edano, operations would have to be taken offshore, leaving tens of thousands of Japanese workers unemployed.
However, the economic consequences of a restart are not one-sided. Re-opening the plants creates the risk of another radiation leak and even deeper economic difficulties. According to Japan’s welfare ministry, around 20% of Fukushima’s earthquake survivors are either still unemployed or have become discouraged workers. Additionally, both Toshiba and Sony blame their dramatic declines in profits on disruptions caused by the earthquake, as well as the euro zone crisis and unfavourable exchange rates. The re-opening of the plants is therefore a risky investment given the country’s economic and environmental climate.
Furthermore, the announcement has already damaged a growing tourism industry. Prior to the announcement, Ohi was an emerging tourist hot-spot. Since Mr Noda’s formal announcement, the summer reservations at one inn close to the Ohi plant are at one-tenth of their regular levels.
According to a recent poll by Jiji news agency, just under half of the Japanese population is against the move to restart the Ohi reactors. Kansai, the large urban region traditionally fueled by Ohi, has been warned of energy shortages during the summer. If the reactors are left offline and the region survives the hot months without blackouts, the public will see that nuclear and business lobby threats have been unfounded. Noda has excellent timing. If he can convince the Japanese public of the need for these two reactors, perhaps his sensitive campaign to turn on other reactors will progress smoothly. Japan’s nuclear reactors will, in this way, be a testament to the strength of an aggressive government - or the resilience of the public.