On Jan. 1, Hiroaki Nakanishi, chairman of the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren), held press interviews on the outlook of the business community and, at one point, the discussion turned to nuclear energy.
Nakanishi is also the chairman of Hitachi Ltd., a major supplier of nuclear technology, and he said that the commercial possibilities for nuclear energy in Japan, for both “clients,” meaning power companies, and “vendors,” meaning plant manufacturers such as Hitachi, were increasingly limited. If clients can’t make a profit, then neither can vendors, and that will continue to be the case as long as the public is opposed to nuclear energy. The industry can’t force nuclear power on the citizens of a democracy.
Major media were presumably represented at the interviews, but only one outlet, All-Nippon News Network (ANN), reported Nakanishi’s nuclear-related comments. Jan. 1 was a newspaper holiday, which means that no newspapers were published on Jan. 2, but there was still no other mention of his remarks on Jan. 3. On Jan. 5, journalist Hajime Takano commented on this lack of interest to former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama on the latter’s web channel for his East Asian Community Institute. The head of Hitachi, a key company in nuclear technology, had said that the business of nuclear energy is impossible without public support. Since nuclear energy is national policy, the ramifications are huge, Takano said, and yet no other major media had covered the remarks or ANN’s report. Were they afraid of upsetting the government?
The problem with the Wales project is that Hitachi only wanted to build the plant, but it cannot find anyone to run the reactor afterward, so Hitachi would have to assume operations itself to get approval for construction. In that regard it needs financial help from the British government, which couldn’t be guaranteed in the wake of the Brexit fiasco. Similar problems were faced by two other Japanese companies: Toshiba Corp. in the United States and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. in Turkey, both of which ended up pulling out of respective foreign nuclear construction projects.
Ever since Japanese nuclear plant expansion ground to a halt after the Fukushima disaster, the government has promoted overseas nuclear development as a growth strategy, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as the lead international salesman. However, proposed projects in Vietnam, Taiwan and other places have stalled one after another. The collapse of the British project, which was formally announced Thursday, may be the final nail in the coffin.
For what it’s worth, pro-nuclear advocates have always said the main obstacle to nuclear power is public opinion, which they believe is ill-informed. Nuclear energy is not as dangerous as people think it is, they say, and is much less environmentally harmful than fossil fuels, which currently supply the bulk of Japan’s electricity needs. The government, they insist, needs to sway the public.
However, in the Jan. 13 issue of the Tokyo Shimbun, Chuo University professor Motoko Mekata says the people are right to reject the “mythology” of nuclear power as being “safe, clean and inexpensive,” and was disappointed with Nakanishi’s remarks.
As soon as Hitachi realized that nuclear exports were economically unfeasible, they said they can’t do it without public support, wrote Mekata. The nuclear industry has not changed its position, she said, it’s just shifted the blame for its miscalculations on someone else.