Nuclear’s Role Still Uncertain in Japan.

Voters send mixed signals on the value of cheap power. 
The New YorkTimes International Weekly.
 By Martin Fackler

Several industrialized countries have turned their backs on nuclear power as a result if the Fukushima nuclear disaster, including one that has already begun permanently shutting functioning plants.

“Germany chose to get of nuclear power because of Fukushima, while the United States is still in favor, but what about Japan, where the accident took place”, said Jun Tateno, who has written several books about the fundamental question: Do we want nuclear power’s low-cost electricity for growth, or do we want a safer, nuclear-free society?”

Many analysts had hoped that a recent vote to choose the next governor of Tokyo would provide just such a forum. But the results of the contest – which included unsuccessful by two antinuclear candidates - were unclear.

The current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, appeared emboldened, saying a day after the election that he would soon release a “realistic and balanced” energy strategy, which analysts took as meaning one that would call for restarting at least some idled nuclear plants. But some analysts warned that Mr. Abe could still face a public backlash if he is seen as rushing to return Japan to its pre-accident status quo.

The election appears to encapsulate the indecisiveness that has kept Japan paralyzed for nearly three years, since the triple meltdowns. After decades of marching forward in the belief that the cheap nuclear power to compete economically, Japan is no longer able to muster a new national consensus on it.

Voters continue to send mixed signals, electing Mr. Abe, who has called nuclear power a vital part of his popular Abenomics strategy to revive growth even as polls continue to show an ambivalence about atomic energy. Voters have chosen Mr. Abe’s pro-nuclear governing party in national elections, but then opposed a restart of the plants in opinion polls. That has left this consensus-driven country without a way forward, even as its trade surplus has turned to a deficit, with soaring bills for fossil fuels to make up for the lost nuclear power.

“People cannot feel the economic damage now because of the overall lift from Abenomics,” said Koji Nomura, an economics professor at Keio University in Tokyo. “But this is a bill that will come due.”

The prime minister and his allies in the business community have argued as much, saying that the idling of nation’s 48 operable reactors threatens Abenomics by forcing Japan to import an extra $36 billion worth of fuel every year. But even Mr. Abe has been unwilling to force the point by turning the plants on.

While the candidate from the governing pro-nuclear power party prevailed, analysts say he did so in part by distancing himself from its stance with vague expressions of support for gradual phaseout if nuclear energy. The two candidates who called for immediate scrapping all atomic power plants also fared better that the result seemed to suggest, winning a combined 1.9 million votes, just 200,000 shy of the victor’s tally. And the only avowedly pro-nuclear candidate of any stature placed a distant fourth. At the same time, analysts said, Tokyo’s voters proved unconvinced by the lofty vision articulated by the high-profile antinuclear candidate, former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa.

Some analysts say that in the end, they expect Japan to go back to the compromise position of a previous government that Mr. Abe scrapped when he took power: allowing the restart of the newest plants in exchange for promise that Japan will eventually shed nuclear power as realistic alternatives are developed.

“Neither Abe nor Hosokawa is at the center of public opinion,” said Takeo Kikkawa, an expert on the energy industry at Tokyo’s Hitotsubashi University. “A gradual phaseout remains the best answer for solving the nuclear problem while preserving growth.”

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