After Japan’s former prime minister Naoto Kan took a decidedly anti-nuclear stance at the end of his term, it appeared as if the country could soon be heading in the direction of weaning off their dependence on nuclear energy. When his successor, Yoshihiko Noda, was elected from the same political party, the relatively new Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), there was a distinct hope that the government’s stance on nuclear power would continue along the same trajectory.
Within weeks of Noda’s inauguration speech, that hope remained shaky at best.
Following the March 11th, 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster, there arose a call as never before to end Japan’s dependence on nuclear energy. This call was echoed in many other countries as well, most notably Germany, who has pledged to phase out their power plants by 2022. Kan responded by taking an anti-nuclear stance and saying that Japan should engage alternate solutions to replace the energy produced by their fifty-four power plants. However, so vicious was the governmental backlash from his comments that he was forced to retract his words as a personal opinion instead of the official party stance on the issue. After he left office, the team of researchers assembled to address the repercussions of the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown was disbanded.
Though Noda began his term in office by agreeing to produce a new energy plan in the next year to reduce Japan’s dependence on nuclear sources, higher-ups in the DPJ who have expressed anti-nuclear opinions find themselves distinctly in the minority, despite that fact that polls demonstrate that seventy percent of the Japanese people are in favor of alternate energy sources (up significantly from pre- March 11th numbers). The government and the people, then, are divided to such an extent that rare public protests have occurred in the last few months in an attempt to pressure the DPJ to change their stance on the issue.
However, past party policies and actions do not make it clear what position the DPJ should take. Established in 1996 and expanded in 1998, the DPJ was originally created in response to the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to serve as a voice for the people. Valuing small businesses, self-sufficiency, foreign relations, and environmental protection, the party has attracted left-leaning, middle and lower-class citizens, many of the same people who wish to phase out nuclear energy. Although one of the DPJ’s seven proposals is to “lead the world in global environmental protection” by “promot[ing] the use of renewable energy,” their current trajectory seems to be leading them in the opposite direction. Recently, not only has Noda agreed to reopen approximately two-thirds of the power plants that were closed following Fukushima’s fallout, but he is also planning to sell nuclear power technology to several other countries, including Vietnam, Lithuania, Turkey, and the United States, a decision that has left many questioning the government’s true future intentions in regards to energy sources.
Supporters of nuclear use argue that the DPJ’s support of healthy environmental policy falls right in line with their endorsement of the power plants. Indeed, when compared to other power sources, uranium usage is currently leading in dual efficiency and cleanliness, as it generates several million times more power than coal and petroleum when used in equal amounts, while producing a fraction of the carbon dioxide emissions. However, the long-term effects of nuclear by-products may prove even more devastating than atmospheric deterioration, as the waste produced by the uranium reaction takes thousands of years to reach safe levels of radiation.
The appropriate stance for the DPJ to take on the future of nuclear power, then, depends on how long-term the party wishes to think and whether they place more emphasis on the energy demand today or the burden of radioactive waste for future generations. Considering the recent political situation in Japan, it is not surprising that they are currently choosing to concentrate on the immediate need: in the past six years, Japan has had the same number of prime ministers come in and out of office, to the extent that most Japanese people no longer bother to keep track of the name of even the current minister. With the country still in upheaval, there is no evidence that Noda will break this trend. As there seems to be little use, then, in forming long-term plans without guaranteed time to implement them, Noda is focusing on what he sees as the best option for the people right now.
As in any political process, though, support for his actions is vital for significant progress to occur, no matter the direction. Though the majority of the people are not yet recovered enough from Fukushima to support the revitalization of the nuclear industry, causing Noda’s approval rating to steadily decrease – currently at 55% and dropping – a more immediate obstacle is the DPJ’s rival party, the LDP. Though the DPJ holds 106 seats in the upper body of legislation, the House of Councilors, the LDP is not far behind at 83. With a total of 242 seats in the House, both parties hold a significant enough amount of power to severely delay or stop any bills Noda wishes to push through. The LDP is already calling for more debate on the future of nuclear power, arguing that whatever the end result may be, more time is needed to discuss any and all possibilities. However, like the DPJ, they, too, are split among themselves on the issue, making its future even more uncertain.
Clearly aware that his current plan of action is unpopular with Japan’s citizen population, Noda has placed considerable emphasis on the tests that are being done to ensure further safety of the country’s nuclear plants before they are reopened. Though he claims that the tests are rigorous, it is highly doubtful that they can simulate the effects that another earthquake of the same magnitude as the one on March 11th could cause. Additionally, recent research produced by University of Tokyo professor Yoshinobu Tsuji that a tsunami up to twice as high as for what the city is prepared could hit the Hamaoka nuclear power plant has only served to further turn popular opinion against nuclear power.
Noda, then, will have to tread very carefully in the weeks and months to come. The scale of the Fukushima disaster clearly acted as a catalyst to invoke Japan’s public fervor, and unlike for past issues, the people are not willing to consign the country’s nuclear fate solely to the hands of the government. The two will remain at odds, then, until a compromise is reached: whether the people or the prime minister will have to give more, though, remains to be seen.