Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s announcement to restart Oi nuclear plant yesterday caught no one off guard. The central government of Japan has repeatedly communicated the need to restart the reactors in order to avoid 15% shortage of electricity this summer. Mr. Noda’s speech indicated that the decision to restart is based on his conviction to protect Japanese citizens’ life (国民生活を守る).
Mr. Noda means by protecting Japanese citizens’ life in two ways. One is that never again should nuclear disaster like Fukushima take place on Japanese soil. In order to prevent the future nuclear crises, Mr. Noda is confident that the government has taken a proper procedure of safety precaution since last year, which guarantees the safety of Oi nuclear plants. Mr. Noda’s speech also indicated that the new nuclear regulatory agency should watch over all the plants to keep Japanese citizens safe.
Mr. Noda’s second meaning is to safeguard citizens’ daily lives by providing steady energy supplies. An energy shortage and blackouts can effect the people’s lives in significant ways. He fears that the people’s health and jobs will be at stake. In addition, the state of Japanese economy will be threatened by energy instability. In order to compete in the global market, the restart of nuclear plants is absolutely necessary.
The central government will most likely order Kansai Electric and Power Co. (Kepco) to restart the reactors sometime next week. On June 10, the nuclear safety committee for Fukui Prefecture (where Oi plant is located) decides on the safety of the plants. Probably on June 12, Oi town mayor will give his agreement to restart. Either on June 13 or 14, Fukui prefectural assembly will entrust the decision to Fukui governor. The governor decides sometimes next week. By the beginning of July, the reactor No.3 will run at its maximum capacity. By the end of July, the reactor No.4 will follow.
There really is nothing that would stop the restart of the plant. Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, one of the main oppositions to the restart of Oi plant, retracted his initial decision to oppose the central government. He even has taken back his party’s determination to crush the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in the next general election by making the nuclear energy a focal point.
The last bastion of the opposition is seen in 117 DPJ members who signed and sent a letter to Prime Minister Noda opposing the restart of Oi plants on June 5. Former Party Leader Ichiro Ozawa’s newly started study group led the movement. Councillor member Kuniko Tanioka stated that the issue of the nuclear restart is a matter of next general election and should not be decided by the central government alone. The list of signers is circulated on internet, and some citizens started a movement to elect these 117 politicians in the coming election.
Oi nuclear plant will most likely be restarted in the coming week. The opposition groups will not be able to do much to oppose the central government’s decision. The question is whether this will be the general tendency of the nuclear politics in Japan.
Mr. Noda’s speech fails to convince the people of Japan. His emphasis to protect the citizens’ life really contradicts facts on the ground. While he states that the safety check of the plants is sufficient, Mr. Noda acknowledges the need to have a new safety measure and the new regulatory agency. The government has been working on these matters, but there needs to be more time. So why push it before they are in place?
Mr. Noda argues that without restarting Oi plant, there will be a great energy shortage and blackouts this summer in Kansai area. But he still insists that the restart of the plant is not merely for this summer but for the indefinite future. Mr. Toru Hashimoto has suggested that the restart of the plant should only be for the summer just to avoid the major shortage. The central government is unwilling to limit the usage of the nuclear power.
The recent study by Mitsuhisa Watanabe of Toyo University and Yasuhiro Suzuki of Nagoya University indicates the possibility of the presence of an active fault within the premises of Oi nuclear power plant. Kepco repeatedly minimized the importance of the study, but it has not given permission to conduct investigation on the premises.
There is a precedent for this type of warning. The possible system failure of Fukushima Daiichi has been pointed out by numerous specialists including IAEA, but both the government and Tepco continued to ignore them. Japan cannot afford to have another Fukushima disaster. Extra precaution must be taken.
Personally, I don’t think the immediate shift to renewable energy from nuclear is not possible for Japan given the scale of economy and the size of the country. However, the current speed to restart as many nuclear plants as possible will cause serious damage in a long term.
In his speech, Mr. Noda demonstrated his determination and willingness to take all responsibility on this issue. And yet, this type of decision is not his alone to take. A possible nuclear disaster not only harms the current generation but also many generations to come, as we painstakingly discovered on March 11 last year.
If Japan needs extra energy for the summer, the government should restrict the usage of reactors. At the same time, Mr. Noda needs to be clear about the road map concerning the regulatory agency as well as the new safety measure. Most of all, it is a matter of the future of Japan, so the decision must be given to the people of Japan. The referendum or general election is absolutely necessary.