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Nuclear power in Japan Flicking the switch via The Economist

Restarting nuclear plants is unpopular but crucial for Shinzo Abe

WHEN he was a student in Satsumasendai, Ryuichi Somekawa was taken on trips to the nuclear-power museum next door to the reactors of the Sendai plant. The museum, which is still open, amounts to a lavish public-relations effort extolling nuclear safety, yet he remained fearful. Now Satsumasendai in Kagoshima prefecture, on the southern tip of Kyushu, southernmost of Japan’s four main islands, is likely to be the country’s first city to approve the restart of a nuclear plant. The Fukushima disaster in 2011 led to the mothballing of all of Japan’s 48 reactors. Like many residents, Mr Somekawa, who is now 47, is dismayed at the news, but he says the decision is well-nigh inevitable.

The final word will come from the governor of Kagoshima prefecture and from Satsumasendai’s mayor. Operations are expected to resume in the autumn. Japan will still need to power itself through a sweltering summer without nuclear energy. Conventional power stations, some formerly idle, have so far saved the economy from power cuts. The pro-nuclear government of Shinzo Abe, the prime minister, hopes a restart at the Sendai plant can open the way for a dozen or more reactors to resume operations.


Choosing Satsumasendai for the first restart was politically savvy, says Jeff Kingston of Temple University in Tokyo. Few places better symbolise a decades-old policy of siting plants in remote and poor locations with few economic options. The the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) power plants provide jobs, and nuclear-related subsidies from the central government pay for an array of sports and cultural facilities, parks and museums. The Sendai plant is a long way from Fukushima; so the catastrophe of the triple meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant in 2011 remains rather distant for many locals, according to Ichiro Yunohara, head of the city council of Aira, a neighbouring town that has not benefited from nuclear largesse.

The cost of closure to the local economy means that officials who favour nuclear power overwhelmingly outnumber opponents in the local assemblies that will vote in the autumn. Yet on the national stage, Mr Abe may still pay a price. His popularity has recently flagged. Last month his Liberal Democratic Party lost a gubernatorial election in Shiga prefecture, partly due to rising anti-nuclear sentiment. Some three-fifths of people are against the Sendai restart, according to a recent nationwide poll of public opinion.

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