Friday, September 21, 2012

Japan to Exit Nuclear Energy – Maybe – Maybe Not

This is from the New York Times:

In an abrupt turnabout, the Japanese government on Wednesday stopped short of formally adopting the goal it announced just last week — to phase out nuclear power by 2040 — after the plan drew intense opposition from business groups and communities whose economies depend on local nuclear power plants.

Color me – surprised? The decision made last week had the political benefit of not impacting most of the officials who supported it and seemed to split the difference between business interests and people wanting to move away from nuclear energy. No one had to think very hard about it because nothing drastic was going to happen for quite awhile.

It turns out a lot of people gave it some thought.

But business groups criticized any move away from nuclear power as impractical and a death knell for Japanese manufacturers, which have already lost much of their competitive edge to cheaper rivals elsewhere in Asia. And communities across Japan that host nuclear facilities feared losing government subsidies, tax revenues and jobs.They also worried that they would become the final dumping ground for spent nuclear fuel stored at their plants.

I’m sure the plants weren’t planning leave fuel rods along the side of the road as they sped out of town, but the overall point seems about right – nuclear energy facilities can be very strong economic engines in their communities and shutting off those engines can have a terrible impact. (I think the 2040 date was meant to soften any such blow, but people clearly aren’t buying it.)

The role of business here was very strong:

A day earlier, the chairmen of Japan’s most prominent business associations, including the influential Keidanren group, called a rare joint news conference to demand that Mr. Noda abandon the 2040 goal. On Wednesday, they praised the cabinet’s decision.

That’s bringing to bear a heck of a lot of pressure. Business often gets a bad rap, but they are employers, too, so trying to rescue themselves means rescuing a lot of workers, too.

There’s a lot more to Hiroko Tabuchi’s story. Do read the whole thing.


To be fair, the story referenced above, or rather its counterparts in the Japanese press, has gotten some pushback from the government.

"Don't get me wrong," [Prime Minister Yoshihiko] Noda said Friday. "We did make a cabinet decision" on the nuclear phase-out policy on September 14.

"Japan will seek a no-nuclear society in the 2030s and will realize it.

"With an unwavering attitude, we will implement various policies based on this principle. This is a huge policy change that we have made with a genuine determination."

My guess, and it has to be a guess, as relevant cabinet documents have not been translated yet, is that the government is keeping things very ambiguous to try to keep different constituencies content. If I’m right, it appears not to be working.

In any event, this is still a decision that will not have an impact until many of the politicians involved have left office and the Japanese government will have changed parties a few time – maybe more than a few, given recent history. A lot could still happen.

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