Toshinobu Hatsui’s protest against construction of a nuclear power plant split friends and families in his hometown. After the biggest atomic accident in 25 years, resentment has turned to gratitude.
“Those of us who opposed the plant can finally be proud of what we did,” said Hatsui, a 62-year-old fisherman, recalling the anger among nuclear supporters in Hidaka, south of Osaka, who missed out on an economic windfall when the town rejected the plant in the 1970s. “Since the accident, people called to express their relief that it wasn’t built.”
Opinion polls show more Japanese agree with Hatsui in demanding a future less reliant on atomic power, a pillar of energy policy for five decades. Getting what they want may depend on Prime Minister Naoto Kan surviving the backlash from the so-called “nuclear village” of politicians, bureaucrats and power utilities that promoted the industry’s rise, academics including Jeff Kingston said.
“Japan’s nuclear village is worried and they’re extremely well connected,” Kingston, head of Temple University’s Asian Studies program at its Tokyo campus, said in a phone interview. “They’re out to get Kan and it’s not because he’s that incompetent. What worries them is that he’s been making provocative statements that trample on very powerful toes.”
It’s an unfamiliar challenge for the nuclear industry, which before the March 11 Fukushima disaster provided about 30 percent of Japan’s electricity. The national energy policy called for that percentage to rise to 53 percent by 2030.
After the magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami knocked out cooling systems at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s plant in northern Japan and caused three reactors to meltdown, Kan said Japan should abandon plans to build 14 new reactors by 2030. He wants to pass a bill to promote renewable energy and questioned whether private companies should be running atomic plants.
“When we consider the risk of nuclear energy, I’ve come to strongly feel that this is a technology that cannot be controlled by our conventional thinking of securing safety,” Kan told reporters yesterday. “We should reduce nuclear dependency in a planned, step-by-step manner. We should eventually create a society where we can do without atomic energy.”
Other plans include separating Japan’s nuclear regulator from the industry’s chief promoter, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, and ending the monopoly that utilities have over power production and transmission.
“All these things hit at the heart of the nuclear village and they’re not going down without a fight,” said Kingston, who also edited “Tsunami: Japan’s Post-Fukushima Future,” a collection of essays.
Nuclear power was a key policy of the Liberal Democratic Party, which governed Japan with almost no interruption for 55 years until 2009. Close ties with the government meant opposition was mostly confined to left-wing parties and the rural towns where utilities chose to build their plants.
All that changed when radiation began leaking from Tokyo Electric’s stricken nuclear plant in March, forcing more than 160,000 people to evacuate to shelters.
“Policy-makers face a stark choice between continued devotion to nuclear power, with all the attendant costs and risks, and a more sustainable future,” Andrew DeWit, professor of politics and public finance at Tokyo’s Rikkyo University, said in a phone interview. “The nuclear village is unraveling, and Kan realizes it because he doesn’t have ties to that base.”
Kan, Japan’s first prime minister in five who isn’t descended from past premiers, has a track record of taking on the establishment.
As health minister in 1996, he forced bureaucrats to release documents exposing their role in allowing as many as 5,000 Japanese to contract HIV through contaminated blood products.
While opinion polls show support for his stance on nuclear power, public backing for Kan has slumped on criticism about how his administration has dealt with the crisis. He survived a no confidence vote on June 2, though only after appeasing critics by saying he would step down once the crisis is contained.
About 77 percent of Japanese support the “gradual abolition” of nuclear power, the Asahi newspaper said on July 12, up 3 percent from June, citing its own polls.
The fight over Japan’s energy future is dividing some of the country’s biggest companies into separate camps, DeWit said.
Nuclear power is “the only way to secure a stable supply of environmentally clean electricity at a relatively low cost,” Shosuke Mori, chairman of Kansai Electric Power Co., the nation’s second-biggest power producer, said in an interview last month.
Softbank Corp. Chief Executive Officer Masayoshi Son countered with plans to invest about 80 billion yen ($1 billion) to build 10 solar farms if he gets access to transmission networks and agreement from the 10 regional utilities to buy his electricity.
“A framework should be designed to make the power business open to anyone who has the will to start it,” Son said at a government panel meeting June 12.
Hiroshi Mikitani, president of Japan’s biggest online retailer Rakuten Inc., quit the main business lobby Nippon Keidanren in protest over the group’s support for the energy status quo.
Around Japan, towns that agree to host nuclear power plants benefit from public works spending and jobs. The town of Ohi, north of Osaka, was saved from bankruptcy in the 1970s when Kansai Electric built a plant there, creating 2,400 jobs, Mayor Shinobu Tokioka said in an interview last month.
In contrast, there is little extra revenue for towns that host power-generating windmills, according to Masao Hatanaka, mayor of Yura, a town neighboring Hidaka.
“There’s not much advantage” to hosting the wind farms, he said in an interview. “They don’t provide employment as the maintenance is handled by two people.”
Osaka Gas Co., which operates a 10-megawatt unit wind power plant in Wakayama, said a feed-in tariff like the one Kan has proposed would stimulate investment. The tariffs guarantee renewable energy producers a higher price for their electricity.
For the 7,800 residents of Hidaka, the debate over nuclear power was decided during the 1970s and 1980s.
Support for the plan faltered after the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania undermined safety claims, Hatsui, the fisherman said. A sign next to the main road promotes it as a “nuclear-free, peaceful town.”
“If these plants were safe, they would have built them near population centers,” Hatsui said in an interview in the town. “We’re not sure what is the best alternative, but we know that we don’t want nuclear power.”