Reuters has released a poll gauging the attitude of Japanese businesses toward nuclear energy. Based on a number of stories I’ve read, I expected the numbers to be extremely dismal.
And while not exactly warming, they’re not nearly as awful as anticipated, either.
About one in five big Japanese firms wants to see the share of nuclear power in the electricity supply reduced to zero by 2030, a Reuters poll showed, amid a growing anti-nuclear clamor after last year’s Fukushima atomic disaster.
But underlining concerns about a rise in energy costs without nuclear power, the rest of the respondents supported a continued role for nuclear energy, with the biggest group opting for a share of 15%.
A little more specifically:
In the Reuters poll, 19% of big firms sought to cut nuclear power’s role to zero, but 39% called for 15% by 2030, as a majority of companies brace for slower economic growth as reliance on nuclear energy declines.
One-quarter said they wanted to see a 20-25% share and the remainder called for even greater percentages, according to the poll of 400 big firms, taken alongside the monthly Reuters Tankan business sentiment survey. A total of 268 responded during the Aug 6-21 survey period.
The share numbers here represent a rather modest reduction, as nuclear energy supplied about 27 percent of Japan’s electricity before the accident at Fukushima Daiichi. This means well more than half the respondents want the share reduced by less than half to barely reduced at all.
Of course, one would really need a series of surveys on this topic to grasp whether these numbers are growing. It’s bald intuition – and the experience of other industrial accidents such as the BP oil spill – to suggest that as time goes by, the impact of an accident becomes less. That’s been true of the Japanese accident in polls taken both here and in Great Britain. It’ll be interesting to see if this follows through in Japan as well.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has said he would like to reduce nuclear energy’s share but is awaiting a medium-term energy plan before describing specifics. One can’t blame Noda for treading carefully.
To cope with increased electricity costs amid a prolonged shutdown of reactors, 69% said they would cut expenditure and 36% would seek cheaper power suppliers, according to the poll, which allowed respondents multiple choices.
Underlining conditions of prolonged deflation, 26% said they would pass the cost on to their customers, while 13% would shift operations out of Japan, according to the poll.
Noda has to balance the wants of a sizable constituency – a government poll shows about 47 percent want to zero out nuclear energy – with their need to retain employment and, from the government’s perspective, contribute to the economy. Carbon emission targets weigh in, too.
So the numbers are not great but not so horrible that they make closing the nuclear facilities a key to political survivability – at least, I don’t think that’s what they would show here.
In this light, an editorial in the Yomiuri Shimbon (a national newspaper) is less surprising.
Securing the safety of nuclear power plants is of course important. However, factors such as economic efficiency and a stable energy supply are also important in deciding the nation's energy policy. As a country poor in natural resources, Japan needs to have various sources of electricity, including nuclear power plants, to ensure a stable power supply.
Thus the government should promote a realistic energy policy of utilizing nuclear power plants from a mid- and long-term standpoint.
Which probably would not have been written a year ago. The paper also tackles public polling.
It is important for politicians to listen to the voices of the people. However, there is a risk that politicians may slip into populism, depending on how much they rely on public opinion.
A member of an expert panel tasked with analyzing the results of the surveys said, "We don't need politics if opinion polls decide everything."
The results of the surveys should be used as one element in discussing the nation's nuclear policy. The government should avoid having the results directly influence its energy policy.
This is a tougher needle to thread. The editorial goes on to say that people don’t realize that closing the nuclear facilities would hurt the economy and raise unemployment. This is true only in a speculative sense – a lot would depend on the length of time the facilities stay open – but politicians don’t have to be “populist” necessarily to accede to the public will even if it will harm them economically. See Germany for exhibit A.
Regardless, all these elements may suggest a consensus forming around nuclear energy continuing with a lesser share. But if this is the consensus, it’s at best a fragile one. We’ll know more after the energy plan is released.