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Japan's leaders fret as nuclear shutdown nears

By Martin Fackler

New York Times

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 01:31 a.m. HST, May 05, 2012



OSAKA, Japan >> Barring an unexpected turnaround, Japan this weekend will become a nuclear-free nation for the first time in more than four decades, at least temporarily.

Japan’s leaders have made increasingly desperate attempts in recent months to avoid just such a scenario, trying to restart plants shut for routine maintenance and kept that way while they tried to convince a skittish public that the reactors were safe in the wake of last year’s nuclear catastrophe. But the government has run up against a crippling public distrust that recently found a powerful voice in local leaders who are orchestrating a rare challenge to Tokyo’s centralized power.

As the last of 50 functional commercial reactors is set to go offline Saturday, that local resistance to turning plants back on has confronted Japan’s leaders with a grim scenario: With the nation’s once vaunted balance of trade already deteriorating, they now face the looming prospect of summer power shortages that could drive still more factories to close or move abroad.

Halting all the reactors “would be something like a group suicide,” said Yoshito Sengoku, acting chief of the governing Democratic Party’s policy committee.

The showdown between local and national leaders has played out in recent weeks at a plant in Ohi, near Osaka, which the government of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has set up as a crucial test case of Japan’s nuclear future.

Two reactors at the idled plant were the first to pass simulated stress tests meant to show that most reactors, unlike those at the Fukushima plant devastated in last year’s earthquake and tsunami, could withstand similar disasters. The administration trusted that Ohi’s reactors would be back in operation by now, or at least would receive local approval to start up soon.

Instead, the central government has found itself battling an improbable adversary: Osaka’s mayor, Toru Hashimoto, the young, plain-speaking son of a yakuza gangster who has ridden Japan’s loss of faith in government to become, seemingly overnight, the country’s best liked politician, according to recent polls.

He has won widespread public support by giving voice to deep-seated public suspicions that the Tokyo government is rushing to promote the interests of the powerful nuclear industry at the expense of public safety — a situation that many Japanese now blame for leaving the Fukushima Daiichi plant so vulnerable in the first place.

Hashimoto’s ascent — and his success in blocking a quick restart of the Ohi plant — are some of the clearest signs yet that the distrust generated by the government’s handling of the Fukushima disaster is reshaping attitudes in Japan, where people had long accepted Tokyo’s sway over their lives.

And the Noda administration’s failure to see Hashimoto coming, along with its reliance on stress tests even as their soundness was questioned, suggests that the disconnect between the government and its people that opened with the nuclear disaster has only widened.

“The Japanese public is fed up with business as usual, and Mr. Hashimoto has been able to seize on that anger,” said Wataru Kitamura, a professor of government at Osaka University. “Japan is deeply frustrated by its own political paralysis, and many see him as the answer.”

Hashimoto takes pains to say he is not against nuclear power. He is, instead, against the opaque, top-down authority that has characterized Japan’s postwar rise and that many Japanese now blame for the government’s perceived failure to prevent last year’s accident and fully inform the public of the radiation risks it posed.

That same attitude apparently led national leaders to underestimate how difficult it would be to persuade local leaders to restart the reactors.

“How can they make a decision like this behind closed doors, without explaining it to the Japanese people?” said Hashimoto, 42, who set up his city’s own independent panel of experts to look into safety measures at the plant, 55 miles north of here. “The restart issue reveals the flaws of Japan’s current system, and how it is beholden to special interests.”

Hashimoto has succeeded in holding up the restart partly because this city of 2.7 million is not only the biggest customer of the Ohi plant, but also the biggest shareholder of the plant’s operator, Kansai Electric Power. But Hashimoto may prove to be a longer-term danger to Tokyo’s leadership if other local officials nationwide follow his lead in demanding more answers before allowing their own nearby plants to start up again.

Already the governors of two other nearby regions, the district including the city of Kyoto and the prefecture of Shiga, also went to Tokyo with demands of their own to strengthen safety at the Ohi plant and to conduct a more thorough investigation into the causes of the Fukushima accident.

Even the mayor of Ohi, Shinobu Tokioka, a longtime backer of the plant, which is a major source of jobs in his town, has said the reactors should not be restarted without gaining the support of all of Kansai, the heavily populated region that includes Osaka.

The uprising of sorts appears to have completely thrown off the government’s strategy for quickly getting Ohi and other plants back online, say political analysts. The government had apparently been hoping for the quick consent of host communities, which have been essentially bought off for years with generous subsidies and tax benefits to allow the plants in their midst, and which will be the first to suffer economically if the plants are shuttered.

If Hashimoto gets his way, that discussion will need to be broader, taking into account the worries of municipalities much farther from the plants, but likely to be harmed if there were meltdowns and radiation releases of the type that happened at Fukushima Daiichi. For Japan, that type of broad public involvement in decision making would not only be highly unusual, it could also delay restarting reactors for months or even years.

In a direct snub to the central government, Hashimoto has appointed a panel of nuclear engineers and seismologists, who have faulted the stress tests for being conducted even before the government has finished its own inquiry into what went wrong at Fukushima.

That criticism has resonated among many Japanese, who say the tests, conducted out of their view, were nothing more than a fig leaf.

“The restart issue shows how government does not work for us,” said Takashi Okuda, a 51-year-old truck driver in Osaka. “We like Hashimoto because he wants to stop Tokyo from trying to restart the plants without finding out what went wrong or who is responsible” for the accident in Fukushima.

Officials in the Noda government quickly brushed aside Hashimoto’s request for giving local leaders more power to stop nuclear plants, saying that the national government should set energy policy. Some of the sharpest words came from Sengoku of the governing party, who last week accused Hashimoto of “irresponsibly using this issue for political goals.”

Jiro Yamaguchi, a political scientist at Hokkaido University, agreed that Hashimoto might be trying to “present himself as a savior” to boost his political standing. “But,” he said, “he is on to something very genuine: Japan’s frustration in lack of leadership and political inertia.”

There is no guarantee that Hashimoto’s revolt will last past the summer, when the notion of life without nuclear power will become more real in a nation that relied on reactors to fuel its powerful postwar economy.

But his resistance has already created a subtle shift. In the countdown to the idling of the last working reactor, leaders from Tokyo were rattled enough to reverse Japan’s long-established power dynamic. Instead of receiving local leaders in the capital, they pleaded their case in person — in the Fukui prefectural seat, near Ohi.






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