Monday, February 10, 2014

The Tokyo Election:

What it Means for Nuclear Power in Japan

The election results are in for the hotly contested election for governor of Tokyo, and the "nuclear-neutral" candidate has prevailed by a significant margin.  Since the election had seemingly morphed into a plebiscite on nuclear power, one could reasonably now ask what this vote may mean for nuclear power in Japan.

My own assessment is that it may mean less for nuclear power than the pro-nukes might wish or the anti-nukes might fear.  Perhaps what it means most is simply that the electorate of Tokyo acted rationally and decided that nuclear power wasn't really an appropriate election issue for Tokyo.

By explanation, let's recap the election briefly.  The winning candidate, Japan's former Health Minister Yoichi Masuzoe, is a former member of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party.  He was running against former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, who had made opposition to nuclear power the central issue of his campaign.  By contrast, Masuzoe had not made energy policy a key issue, although he did state an interest in reducing the use of nuclear power in the medium to long term.  This was consistent with Abe's position on nuclear energy.

So, does this mean that the population of Tokyo backs nuclear energy?  Hardly.  In the first place, Masuzoe's didn't really support nuclear power, so much as indicate he felt Japan needed to tolerate it for the time being.  This position probably resonated with the electorate.  In the second place, surveys have shown that the public continues to be against nuclear power, but they are more concerned about jobs and the state of the economy.  Masuzoe's platform focused on these issues.  It should also be noted that there was a pro-nuclear candidate on the ballot--he came in a very distant fourth.  (A further possible factor is that voter turnout has been reported as low.  The role of the snowfall in Tokyo the day before, which was nearly a 50-year record level, is being debated.)

What the election results really mean is that the Tokyo public put their economic interests above their concerns about nuclear power.  In reality, since there are no nuclear power plants in the Tokyo area, it would have been foolish for them to make nuclear power their primary issue anyway.  [*This is in contrast the significance of the issue of nuclear power in other parts of Japan.  See note at end of blog.]  Voting for an anti-nuclear ticket in Tokyo might have been a "feel good" vote for an anti-nuke, but it was unlikely to have any practical value.  Therefore, in my view, the vote mainly means that the Tokyo electorate voted based on reason, and not on emotion.

As a result, it would be unwise for either the pro-nuclear camp or the anti-nuclear camp to make too much of the results of this election.  It is not a ringing endorsement of nuclear power.  The anti-nukes are not going to feel their cause is lost and slink away in defeat.  The path to restarting the shuttered nuclear power plants in Japan is still not clear or easy.  What happens in the nuclear arean will continue to depend on the on-going dialogue between the utilities the Nuclear Regulation Agency in Japan and on the local jurisdictions around each of the power plants.

Likewise, had the vote gone for Hosokawa, it would unlikely have had much impact on the activities already in process to try to gain approval to restart some of the idled plants.  However, it certainly would have reinforced the image that the Japanese population put their highest priority on shuttering the existing plants, and in that sense, would have created an additional psychological hurdle.

Therefore, the fact that vote went the way it did provides a ray of optimism for the future of nuclear power in Japan.  It demonstrates that nuclear power isn't the key issue for the general population, and it gives some hope that, if plants are restarted and run smoothly, the anti-nuclear sentiment may become less and less of a priority among the voters of Japan.

[*Note:  In contrast to other countries, local jurisdictions in Japan do have a role in decisions on nuclear power plant operations--and other industrial or infrastructure-related activities--in their areas.  Therefore, this type of vote could have an impact in areas of Japan that host nuclear power plants.]


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