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Japan PM Noda raises the stakes to restart reactors

In a nationwide speech he tells the country they are “indispensible”

Prime Minister Noda

The message of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda about restarting the nation’s nuclear reactors is as clear as the sound of temple bells at noontime.  In a stark appeal on national television, he said the loss of energy from the closed power stations could bring rolling blackouts and economic chaos to the country.

Taking his case directly to the people, and over the heads of provincial political leaders who have been seeking air cover on the nuclear energy issue, Noda said the reactors must be restarted to meet two critical needs.

They are economic prosperity and national security.  In effect, he placed the fate of the nation on the balance beam that mediates the swing of public opinion. So far, it has been running heavily against restart.

What Noda seeks is explain why the nation must summon its courage and face its fears with resolution. It is a personal appeal which is the antithesis of the normal gray bureaucratic pronouncements of Japanese political leaders.

This is a distinctly Japanese message which leverages fundamental values in the country’s culture. Noda is bringing to bear the dignity of his office, a stoic attitude, and, most importantly, he is seeking to leverage the resilience of the Japanese people facing disaster to come to grips with an energy crisis.

In his ten minute speech he tells the Japanese people they cannot maintain their standard of living without the 50 commercial reactors that provide 30% of the nation’s electricity. He dismisses claims that conservation measures will be enough.

His trump card is that the nation’s security cannot be trusted to the shifting sands of oil supplies from a volatile Middle East. Worse, those fossil fuels are expensive and have plunged the county into its first trade deficit in three decades.

Toru Hasimoto

The most important near-term milestone is to get two nuclear reactors at the Ohi plant in the Kansai region. Provincial political leaders have mixed responses. Osaka Mayor Toru Hasimoto, a high profile political leader, who has waffled for and against the reactors, now says he can support turning them on for the summer months.

Another milestone that must be completed is to extract the discredited Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency from the METI, the trade ministry, and set it up as an independent and strong nuclear regulatory commission.  Japan’s parliament has agreed to create a five person commission with legal guarantees of independence on staffing, budget, and regulatory powers including enforcement.

Noda said he does not want to restart all the reactors at once, but on a case-by-case basis. However, he also said he does not favor a policy of just using the reactors to meet seasonal high uses of electricity. He said they are needed to assure economic stability for the long term.

A second, and even bolder program, was revealed by officials close to the prime minister’s office.  According to a report in the English language version of the Yomiuri Shimbun, Noda wants to replace reactors that can’t be restarted for safety reasons with advanced LWR designs that have the latest improvements.

One of the problems Noda faces is that there are conflicts between the government and the nation’s nuclear utilities over which safety improvements should be taken first and how quickly they should be put in place. The lack of a nuclear regulatory agency to set these priorities adds to the confusion.

The opposition to restarting the reactors remains a strong force in Japan’s political firmament.  Last week a group of 117 lawmakers from Noda’s own party signed a declaration urging him to go slow on restarts.

Yukio Edano 

Interestingly, Yukio Edano, who was the spokesman for former Prime Minister Kan, has also been out in the provinces talking to officials there. Edano heads the trade ministry and has been on the receiving end of some big hits from Japan’s major corporations about the need for reliable electricity supply or they’ll take their operations offshore leaving behind tens of thousands of unemployed Japanese workers.

Those responses come in response to his defense of his prior employer’s position that all nuclear reactors should be eventually permanently closed. That’s what he said in April, but now he appears to be coming around to Noda’s realist views on energy issues.

Goshi Hoshano, the prime minister’s go to guy for all things nuclear in Japan, told him that what provincial politicians want is air cover for support of restarting the reactors. 

What Noda sees is that the business community is on-board, but the heavy lifting with the general population, via his dramatic speech, is what the prefecture governors want to give their consent to restart the nuclear power stations.

Panel raps former PM for meddling

One thing Noda hasn’t done is spend much time pointing a finger of blame at his predecessor Naoto Kan. That’s because plenty of other people are doing it for him.  On June 9 the chief of a panel appointed by the Japanese parliament issued an uncharacteristically harsh criticism of the performance of the previous government during the early days of the Fukushima crisis.

Shuya Nomura

The Mainichi Daily reported in its English language version that Shuya Nomura, a member of the panel, said, “The excessive intervention by the prime minister’s office induced confusion at the accident scene.”

The panel said the government’s response was “haphazard.”

Another issue which has generated political heat for the former prime minister is a statement by Nomura that Kan would have allowed TEPCO to evacuate its staff from the crippled reactors. Kan has tried to take credit for convincing the panel he was responsible for the opposite effect, which was to keep the workers on site to contain the situation and aid in disaster response.

The workers stayed and worked facing unimaginable hard conditions to try to bring the tsunami ravaged site under control. What they brought to the job are the same values that Noda seeks to harness for his message to the Japanese people

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Dan Yurman's picture

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Jesse Parent's picture
Jesse Parent on Jun 13, 2012 4:46 am GMT

Hey, I respect Noda for having the gumption to take directly to a national tv audience. ” In a stark appeal on national television, he said the loss of energy from the closed power stations could bring rolling blackouts and economic chaos to the country.”

I’m going to believe him. What I’d like to believe, however, is that Japan’s return to nuclear power will usher in a new wave of safety regulation and planning, such that more problems don’t happen again. Japan, for better or worse, will be a very interesting case study in the decades to come – and may provide significant lessons for the rest of the world about how to go about meeting energy needs safely.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Jun 13, 2012 4:07 pm GMT

Every knowledgeable fan of Nuclear Power knows one set of truths, that is that the past Generations 1&2  power plants are archaic, they are horribly inefficient, and they leave  open the possibility of radiation escaping into the environment through human error, however rare that may have been.

While today’s Generation 3 plants are less prone to human error, they are still less than ideal in terms of their efficiency and the amount of Nuclear Waste” that they generate.

While Japan should restart their nuclear plants due to need and expediency, but they should also use this opportunity to usher in the 4th Generation Nuclear power in any future or newly built plants. This is quite pertinent since some of their current reactors in Japan are quite possibly nearing decomissioning.

Japan should focus on 4th Generation technologies like the IFR, LFTR, MSR, and Bill Gate’s Travelling Wave technology. Generation 4 Nuclear power is really very compact, very efficient, very safe, immensely powerful, and solves the nuclear waste problem.

This is one technology that Japan and the rest of the world should embrace and develop for ourselves and our posterity.

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