Monday, December 24, 2012

Nuclear Power in Japan: The Long and Short of It

First, the short: Did anyone think that there was any meaningful difference between the LDP-Komeito coalition and the DPJ ? Or the Hashimoto-Ishihara JRP for that matter? Yesterday (Dec. 23), Abe appeared on Fuji TV and stated that he would seek Diet confirmation of the four commissioners appointed by the Noda administration to the newly established Nuclear Regulation Authority. I’m pretty sure that not even the electric utilities ever thought that any of the other nuclear power plants could be turned on again without receiving a seal of safety approval from the NRA under yet-to-be-written new safety standards; Abe’s decision merely confirms it. That also means that any reactor sitting on a live fault is definitely going to be mothballed and eventually decommissioned. The irony here is that the Noda administration had used the nuclear emergency to appoint them pro tem—perfectly legal to be sure—because he feared debilitating consent proceedings. Whatever his personal inclinations or the LDP’s stated position regarding nuclear power, he’s going with the doable, as he always has.

The long? Not so good, if you’re pro-nuclear. Two weeks ago, Professor Hiroshi Tasaka, a nuclear engineer with significant industry and policy experience, gave a talk where he made the following point: Sooner or later, we’ll have to face up to the fact that we’ll be unable to find a location for final disposal of nuclear waste. This means that the nuclear waste will have to be stored in situ in perpetuity, which a) puts a physical limit on nuclear power production and b) adds storage costs in perpetuity, significantly raising the cost of nuclear power. This is also part—the more important part, I would argue—of Shigeaki Koga, the ex-METI official-turned policy advocate/ombudsman’s anti-nuclear argument. But if I had to put a tag on the nonpartisan Professor Tasaka, he’s rationally pro-nuclear, if anything. And he’s been there and done that and knows NIMBY intimately, so his words fall heavily and equally on all sides of the political argument. Is there a way out of this? Professor Takao Kashiwagi, a thermal engineer who strongly supports energy efficiency and renewables and has worked closely with the government for many years, believes that nuclear power has a meaningful role to play in Japan’s energy profile. His solution? He didn’t say it outright in a recent Yomiuri interview, but it was clear that he was looking to overseas locations—I’ve seen talk elsewhere about stable geological formations in Mongolia—for final disposition. I know barely enough to realize that this will face massive political, legal, and IR challenges. But like it or not, that’s where the discussions will be going. But not during this administration; I think that they’ll kick the can down the road on this one.

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