Sunday, September 16, 2012

So Much for No Nuclear Power by the 2030s

The Noda Cabinet’s sort-of resolve to eliminate nuclear power by the end of the 2030s lasted exactly one day when it got lost in Aomori Prefecture, where METI Minister Yukio Edano told Governor Shingo Mimura yesterday (15 September 2012) that the three nuclear power plants, including two in Aomori Prefecture*, currently under construction under permits issued by the national government would be commissioned. The nuclear power plants will each receive a 40 year operating license at commission, which would keep them running into the mid-2050s, well past the Noda Cabinet’s time limit.

* One of them is unlikely to be commissioned any time soon if ever, but that’s another story.

This PR disaster happened because Aomori Prefecture had a trump card. A significant amount of nuclear waste from nuclear power plants from elsewhere in Japan has been sent to Rokkashomura in Aomori from which plutonium (and uranium) will be eventually extracted to be used as nuclear fuel. If all the nuclear power plants are going to be shut down after 40 years in commission according to the Noda government’s decision, there will be no justification for reprocessing*. The Aomori authorities were making use of this point to threaten to exercise their right to send back the nuclear waste to the power plants in case reprocessing became unnecessary, which would in turn all but immediately stop the power plants because they would no longer have a place to store their fresh nuclear waste. The Noda Cabinet, already under fire from all four major national business associations and facing questions from the United States, France and the UK,  each of which has a genuine stake in the Japanese outcome, had no option but to cave on day 2.

 * Actually, Japan could decide to leave the NPT and develop a plutonium bomb. But that’s another story.

This is what happens when a policy decision is made by cabinet members with conflicting policy agendas out of fear—fear of voter backlash*, fear of business complaints—and coming up with a compromise document that is designed to be something for everyone but winds up being nothing to all.

* I now believe that the likelihood of an early snap election has diminished somewhat due to developments in the LDP leadership election. But that’s another story.

BTW I think I’ve figured out something important regarding the Senkaku staredown. But that’s really another story.


Philippe said...

I didn't expect much out of the announcement. The pro-nuclear lobby is hellbent to have their toys back online. It still might open the door for a (slightly) faster decommissioning of the older plants, and one can hope that the newest plants are safer (and/or more easy to improve in terms of safety).

BTW I think I’ve figured out something important regarding the Senkaku staredown.
Please do share!

Jun Okumura said...


Newer power plants are inherently safer because…they are new. Joking aside, other things being equal, new power plants are safer because they incorporate lessons learned from past experiences of the nuclear power industry. After all, one of the things that I learned when I looked at the Diet commission report on Fukushima-daiichi was the extent to which they were making it up as they went along in the early days. No reactor discovered to be built on a live fault line will be allowed to be reopened, so there should be potential for a couple of scores for you. There’s a good chance the first reactors to reach the 40 year threshold will be decommissioned, or at least mothballed, but it would be foolhardy to bet on the future of all the existing and under-construction reactors beyond their first 40 years of life.

For your information, I continue to believe that nuclear power still has a future in Japan as it will in the rest of the world. I do not believe that a ragged document cobbled together by a handful of DPJ politicians with different energy agendas united only by the desire to avoid voter wrath in the next lower house election has a very long shelf life. But there are too many unknowns to be sure one way or the other, and I suspect that I will be dead before I know whether or not my outlook has prevailed.

As for the Chinese response, I’m looking to draft a proprietary piece on that point. But I will try to put together a commentary on what I thought was a misguided WaPo report that will give an indication of my point. I’ll post one of the lines from the article that I’ll be taking up as a hint:

“The move came as a direct response to Japan’s nationalization of the uninhabited islands…”