Was Nuclear a Winner in Japan’s July 10 Elections?

On July 10, Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), under PM Abe Shinzo, won a massive majority in the Upper House elections. A couple of years ago, that result would have been read as heralding a rush to nuclear restarts and corresponding diminution of support for renewables and efficiency. Yet as we shall see below, not only have new barriers emerged, further impeding restarts, but Abe’s LDP continues to evolve in its perceptions of the value of sustainable, resilient energy and efficiency.

The Nuclear Salesman

Japan’s PM Abe is, of course, best known internationally for his eponymous “Abenomics,” as well as his aggressive pro-nuclear stance. After taking office in December of 2012, he repeatedly referred to himself as Japan’s “nuclear salesman.” When Abe called a Lower House election two years later, the December 10, 2014 Bloomberg News titled a piece on Abe’s impending victory as “Nuclear Poised to be Winner.” And Abe himself continues to insist that nuclear is an important baseload power source, as he did earlier this year on the fifth anniversary of the March 11, 2011 (3-11) meltdowns at Fukushima.

Even so, at present only two of Japan’s 42 viable nuclear reactors are in operation, at the Sendai plant in Kagoshima Prefecture’s Satsumasendai City. These reactors were restarted in August and October of 2015. Of Japan’s remaining 40 useable reactors, only 24 are in the process of being checked by the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) for approval. And as of the end of May, only 7 (including the 2 Sendai reactors) had received the okay for restart. One problem is that the NRA lacks enough staff to check reactors at more than a snail’s pace. Legal hurdles have also intervened. On the latter, the April 6 Financial Times went so far as to exclaim that Japan’s reactors “are being turned on and off like light switches as activists file lawsuits,” in the wake of a district court’s March 9 order of the shut-down of two reactors at Fukui Prefecture’s Takahama plant. That order was then later upheld on June 17. Other rulings and cases are pending, making Japan’s nuclear politics reminiscent of American-style “lawyering up.”

Certainly, the nuclear-owning utilities continue to push hard for as many restarts as possible, and almost certainly will achieve several successes in the coming months and years. Their incentives are enormous. For example, according to a March 12 report in Japan’s business daily, the Nikkei Shimbun, the utilities have spent JPY 3.3 trillion (about USD 30 billion) on upgrading their reactor fleet to match the NRA’s new safety standards. And their managements remain committed to centralized generation, with distributed-generation modernizers still a minority. So when it comes to corporate strategy, they are convinced that they need restarts to regain competitiveness in the midst of Japan’s ongoing deregulation of its retail power markets. The plight of Japan’s lumbering utilities is made even more difficult by the fact that the country’s power demand is declining. The Nikkei Shimbun reported on June 29 that the use of LED lighting and other conservation measures alone have cut the country’s peak power demand by 9% compared to the years before 3-11.

At the same time, the Abe regime itself is on record as being committed to reducing the reliance on nuclear power as much as possible while maximizing the diffusion of renewable energy, efficiency, and the smart network infrastructure that facilitates it. That ambition is not mere talk, but rather increasingly inscribed in policy. The feed-in tariff is thus being used by the LDP to foster local revitalization, an imperative for any government given Japan’s depopulating regions. The ambition is also evident in Japan’s multiplying fiscal, regulatory and other mechanisms to foster the expansion of diverse forms of renewable energy, increase efficiency and conservation, and accelerate the rollout of so-called smart communities equipped with heat and power microgrids.

All the same, not a few observers express skepticism concerning Japan’s commitment to renewable energy and efficiency. They highlight PM Abe’s support for restarts, and imply that it is not possible to undertake nuclear restarts while building out the green-energy economy. Perhaps these goals were indeed mutually exclusive in the first 2 or 3 years following 3-11, when there was a real possibility that the monopoly utilities would restart almost all their nuclear assets, eviscerate deregulation, and otherwise return to the status quo prior to the meltdown at Fukushima. But the years since then have shown that nuclear is not going to recover, and that its real substitute is imported coal, natural gas and even oil-fired generation. Hence, it is now explicit policy to diffuse renewable and efficiency in order to reduce the cost of imports while at the same time contributing to the economic development of Japan’s regions.

And consider this: were the cynics right that the Abe regime is just paying lip service to green, while slavishly following the dictates of the utilities, then surely it very odd that Abe’s government has not made increasing NRA staff an urgent national priority. As noted earlier, the lack of staff hinders safety checks of nuclear plant, an issue that has been highlighted in numerous article and studies since the NRA was first established 3 years ago. The problem has even drawn international attention. In their January 22, 2016, report on Japan, the International Atomic Energy’s Integrated Regulatory Review Service argued for bolstered staffing at the NRA. Yet continuing gripes from the nuclear industry indicate there has been minimal action, if any. While that inaction hardly means the Abe regime is anti-nuclear, it does at least suggest that there is some distance between the utilities and the government when it comes to the willingness to devote scarce resources to pursuing restarts.

Other Indicators

Moreover, in addition to the legal and regulatory troubles noted above, the July 10 elections produced yet another hurdle for Japan’s pro-nuclear lobby. In tandem with the national campaign for the Upper house, there were several local elections. One of these was the Kagoshima Prefecture gubernatorial election, the prefecture in which the two operating Sendai reactors are sited. Election night saw a centrist anti-nuclear candidate win on a call to study shutting down the Sendai reactors for safety checks as well as bolstering of evacuation plans. Kagoshima’s new Governor, Mitazono Satoshi (a 58 year-old and telegenic former Asahi TV announcer), was greatly aided by the fact that he was running against an intellectually depleted incumbent, Ito Yochiro, a 68 year-old seeking his 4th term. Worse yet, Ito is given to such egregious gaffes as publicly questioning the value of teaching math to young girls. Ito made that particular remark last August 27, at a prefectural conference on education. It drew national scorn, which did not amuse Kagoshima voters.

Mitazono’s campaign announcement and campaign literature featured his call for revisiting the safety of the Sendai reactors. However, the election campaign itself did not centre on the nuclear issue. Mitazono was careful to position himself as a centrist and exploit the incumbent’s manifest weaknesses. He thus attracted broad support, including from the ranks of conservatives that had previously supported the hapless Ito. How aggressive Mitazono becomes on energy and environmental policy remains to be seen. Yet it seems likely that Mitazono will follow up on his promise to establish a commission to study the reactors’ safety, especially in light of the massive – and completely unexpected – earthquakes that struck neighbouring Kumamoto Prefecture in mid-March. The timing could not be better, for the anti-nuclear circles, as the Sendai reactors are scheduled to go into regular maintenance shutdowns in October and December of this year. Those shutdowns leave them vulnerable, as the Governor’s consent is required for restart. Certainly Japan’s markets took the threat of yet more trouble quite seriously: the share price of Kyushu Electric – the owner of the Sendai reactors – plunged by 7.55% during trading on July 11, the Monday after Mitazono’s win.

Satsumasendai City’s Smart Community

Mitazono’s campaign literature also emphasized the value of renewable energy and disaster-resilience. He is virtually certain to act on these promises once in office because they are in fact core to Abenomics evolution towards investment in smart and resilient local communities. In the current fiscal year, there are several trillions of yen in subsidies devoted to energy-related “national resilience,” energy efficiency, renewables, advanced storage, and the like.

In this respect, it is interesting that the Sendai reactors are sited in Satsumasendai City, one of Japan’s most ambitious smart community projects. Because of Japan’s political polarization concerning nuclear power and renewables, Japan’s green enthusiasts do not know of Satsumasendai’s project. And when asked about it, they are given to dismissing it as “greenwash.” Yet perhaps the city’s efforts deserve more careful attention as an indicator of Mitazono’s incentives and where Japan as a whole might be going.

In the wake of 3-11, Satsumasendai City set up an energy commission to study the transition to renewable energy, efficiency and biomaterials. As the city itself argues, it has long been a provider of energy from large-scale nuclear and fossil-fuel plant. The disaster at Fukushima, and all that followed, saw the city determine that it needed to examine the transition to “next generation energy.” The fruits of Satsumasendai’s energy commission include what is perhaps Japan’s most professional and user-friendly website (in Japanese) on smart communities and next-generation energy. The site’s linking window is positioned prominently on the city’s home-page, dead centre at the top of the page. The site is also regularly updated, the most recent being the announcement of a July 17 event at Satsumasendai’s “Smart House.” The city also hosts a twice-weekly community radio event “Good Morning, Next Generation Energy” (in Japanese) on smart communities and a wide range of related issues.

Moreover, the city boasts an impressive list of energy, transmission, storage, and other projects. In collaboration with a variety of firms, Satsumasendai has installed over 13 megawatts of generally large-scale solar generation, a 23.7 megawatt biomass plant, 27.6 megawatts of onshore wind power, 30 kilowatts of small hydro, and a 200 kilowatt smart grid test site. Run by Kyushu Electric, the smart grid test has been in operation since April of 2011 and is scheduled to continue to March of 2017. It is sited in one of the city’s districts, and includes about 230 residences equipped with smart meters. The smnart-grid test groups solar generation and battery storage, and is aimed at innovating applications to cope with solar’s fluctuating output.

Satsumasendai’s smart community project is hardly as aggressive or inclusive as it should be. While the city’s finances do offer significant support for household solar and other projects, the lack of community solar and other citizen-centred projects is surely something the new Prefectural Governor should try to remedy. Kyushu Electric probably should also be pushed harder on the smart grid. Japanese firms such as Toshiba are already doing far more advanced work elsewhere in Japan as well as in Hawaii, Ontario, and other overseas locations.

That said, Satsumasendai itself does offer Mitazono – not to mention other observers – a concrete example of infrastructure and policy that points to alternatives to the centralized and risky generation that remains core to Japan’s power mix. Moreover, the city’s more recent projects stress the disaster-resilience of renewables and storage. The spread of this paradigm is in fact evident nation-wide. Over the past two years, Japan’s energy, disaster reduction, spatial planning, and related policy regimes have increasingly highlighted the value of renewables, efficiency, microgrids, storage and other infrastructure. For the centre-right, these assets are viewed as key to local autonomy, local revitalization, disaster resilience, national security, and similar objectives.

So, to return to where this short article began, a couple of years ago the LDP’s electoral victory was deemed to herald a return to the dominance of nuclear power. But now that scenario is simply not in the cards, in spite of Abe’s electoral triumph on the 10th. Rather, impelled by a variety of constraints and opportunities, the Japanese centre-right’s perception of smart energy has shifted greatly. And if anything, the pace of that change seems likely to accelerate and become even more salient in the Abenomics growth strategy.