• Environment minister withdrew comment amid resignation calls
  • Fukushima speech puts spotlight on minister's effectiveness

Japan’s environment minister, Tamayo Marukawa, has brushed aside calls from opposition lawmakers to resign from her ministerial post after saying the government’s radiation decontamination target for the area around the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant had no grounding in scientific evidence.

The controversy stems from comments made by Marukawa, a surprise cabinet pick by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the run-up to last year’s climate talks in Paris, during a Feb. 7 speech in Nagano prefecture. 

According to a report from the Shinano Mainichi, a regional newspaper, Marukawa questioned the basis of the government’s long-term goal for reducing additional radiation levels near the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant to an annual dose of 1 millisievert or less. Some areas near the Fukushima plant exceed an annual dose of 20 millisieverts, according to the latest data compiled by the Environment Ministry.

Despite apologizing and withdrawing the comments, Abe’s opponents in parliament this week demanded that Marukawa, 45, a former television news anchor turned upper house lawmaker, resign from cabinet.

The incident and the minister’s vague stance on whether Japan should approve any new coal-power plants have given Abe’s foes and environmentalists leverage to question her suitability to the environment post. The focus on Marukawa also underscores the challenge she faces in implementing tough rules to combat climate change, while appeasing industries depending on carbon-emitting energy sources.

“I am very disappointed as I had high expectations when we had a new minister before the climate change talks,” Hisayo Takada, a climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace Japan, said by phone Tuesday. “The environment ministry obviously has to work on decontamination and bring the level back to 1 millisievert. Her remarks were unacceptable.”

The International Commission on Radiological Protection recommends a maximum dose of 1 millisievert of additional radiation per year for the general public, and 20 for nuclear workers. While the ICRP views any additional radiation increasing chances of developing cancer, prolonged exposure of 100 millisieverts or more leads to a significant risk of cancer.

The millisievert is a measure of the absorption of radiation by the human body.

Fresh Opportunity

The minister addressed the controversy during a news conference on Feb. 12.

“I would like to offer my sincere apology, especially to the victims of
earthquakes, if my comments caused misunderstanding that I don’t take the long-
term decontamination target seriously,” she said.

Abe’s appointment of Marukawa, part of a broader push to include more women in senior government positions, was part of a cabinet reorganization in October aimed at reviving the world’s third-largest economy.

Her selection was also seen as presenting Japan with a fresh opportunity to beef up the nation’s environmental credibility in the face of growing criticism that the world’s fifth-largest emitting country isn’t doing enough to combat climate change. Just 44 at the time of her appointment, Marukawa was markedly younger than her predecessor, Yoshio Mochizuki, 68.

“When she took office, her ministry was doing its own projects on smart energy systems and had been increasingly aggressive on coal,” Andrew DeWit, a political economy professor at Rikkyo University in Tokyo, said by e-mail.

During Marukawa’s speech at the COP21 climate talks in December, she said Japan would establish global warming measures based on any agreement that came out of Paris. She also reiterated Japan’s pledge to cut emissions by 26 percent by 2030 from 2013 levels.

While Marukawa proposed a policy earlier this month that would place greater scrutiny on emissions from the nation’s electricity producers, she’s drawn fire for her unclear stance on new coal-fired power plants. Despite saying late last year that she opposed new coal plants, Japan’s Nikkei newspaper reported earlier this month that she would approve four new projects. When pressed at a news conference earlier this month, she stopped short of saying whether she would approve new projects.

Coal Plants

The matter is of urgent interest to Japan’s utilities, which are facing the prospect of increasing competition once the retail electricity market is fully liberalized in April. Coal is the cheapest fuel for thermal power generation.

“Japan is going in a direction that ignores all the measures that need to be beefed up after COP,” Mika Ohbayashi, director at the Japan Renewable Energy Foundation, said by phone. “She gave into industry pressures as the power companies prepare for liberalization” because some plants want to use cheap coal as fuel.

In 2012, the environment ministry adopted the 1 millisievert exposure benchmark in the area surrounding the Fukushima Dai-Ichi No. 1 reactor in accordance with recommendations from the ICRP and the Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan. 

Japan evacuated 12 towns following the Fukushima disaster in March 2011. Citizens were allowed to return to the town of Hirono six months after the disaster. Evacuation orders weren’t lifted for parts of Tamura and Kawauchi until 2014, and the entirety of Naraha until September.

Clean-up efforts at Fukushima are also ongoing. The prime minister promised in 2013 that the government would take the lead in resolving ongoing water management issues at the Fukushima site ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Two years later, hundreds of tons of water continue to pour into the reactor buildings, while tainted water at other parts of the site are still overflowing into the ocean.

Cabinet Performance

Marukawa’s radiation comments are the latest gaffe to hit Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party in recent weeks. LDP lawmaker Kensuke Miyazaki offered his resignation last week following reports of an extramarital affair. Akira Amari stepped down as economy minister last month over allegations of financial impropriety.

Akira Nagatsuma, member of the opposition’s Democratic Party of Japan and former minister of Health, Labour and Welfare, said on Monday in parliament that Marukawa was unfit to be a minister. Akihiro Hatsushika, a member of the Japan Innovation Party, called for Marukawa to resign on Monday.

“Marukawa’s performance so far suggests she either doesn’t understand her portfolio or simply hasn’t much interest in it,” Rikkyo University’s DeWit said. “But I think she will indeed continue, as the Abe regime can hardly afford to have yet another ministerial resignation while its name-brand growth policy goes south.”

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