Hard road on Japan’s nuclear policy

June 20, 2011

By Kevin Krolicki

Suddenly Taro Kono doesn’t look like quite the lonely maverick in Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party.

Kono, a member of the lower house of parliament, has been an unrelenting critic of Japan’s pursuit of nuclear power since he was first elected in 1996. That made him an odd fit with the LDP, which ruled Japan almost continuously from the mid-1950s to 2009 and put nuclear power at the center of Japan’s energy policy.

“For the past 15 years, it has felt like Taro Kono against the LDP,” he told the Reuters Rebuilding Japan Summit.

But since the Fukushima Daiichi accident triggered by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, Kono’s call to scrap nuclear in favour of renewable energy and conservation has moved from the fringe to something closer to the mainstream of political opinion.

About 50 lawmakers attended a recent study group he sponsored on energy policy, out of 722, and Kono sees a prospect for a kind of “green alliance” between sympathetic LDP lawmakers and some in the Democratic Party of Japan.

Kono sees that stopping short of a full-scale political realignment, but hopes it shows momentum for his tough-love approach to restructuring Tokyo Electric, the embattled utility that owns the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant.

Kono wants to see Japan commit to phasing out nuclear power by shutting down reactors when they reach 40 years of service. He would allow existing nuclear plants to restart by next summer provided they pass tough “stress tests” on safety and shift to natural gas as a bridge to renewables like solar thermal technology.

He also wants to see Tokyo Electric put through a government-run bankruptcy process to cover the costs of cleaning up the Fukushima accident and paying compensation to the more than 80,000 residents forced to evacuate and the businesses, including farms and fisheries that have been shut down. He would also have Tokyo Electric scrap its Fukushima Daini nuclear complex.

Tokyo Electric is Japan’s largest corporate bond issuer, and many analysts have suggested that a default would have a disruptive ripple effect for other borrowers.

The majority of the LDP is not ready to back that approach, he said. But Kono said he sees a bigger risk with the current government plan for Tokyo Electric, which would provide government support but leave the utility on the hook for years of compensation payments.

“If we push ahead with that kind of an odd plan, that will have future effects on the markets as well,” he said.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Toru Hanai

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