Japanese Nuclear Policy after the 2013 Upper House Elections

On July 21, 2013, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) coalition won a sizeable victory in Japan’s House of Councillors (Upper House) elections.   It has been thought that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was waiting to consolidate his political power in both houses of the Diet before embarking on an aggressive campaign to restart the country’s fleet of mostly idle nuclear power reactors. Given that the LDP has been the only political party not to commit to an eventual phase-out of nuclear power, what can we expect now that the LDP coalition is firmly in control of the Diet?

Q1: How did the most recent Upper House election alter Japan’s political landscape?

A1: In 2012, the LDP and its coalition partner, the New Komeito party, won a nearly two-thirds majority in the Lower House. However, Japan’s political system continued to suffer from a “twisted parliament,” where the ruling coalition controlled a majority in the Lower House, while an opposition coalition (in this case, the Democratic Party of Japan) held a majority in the Upper House. Mr. Abe has claimed that this division within the Diet has prevented him from advancing his broader policy agenda.

The recent Upper House election gave the LDP and New Komeito 76 of the 121 contested seats, providing them with a comfortable majority of 135 out of 242 total seats (more than the 129 seats needed to control all standing committees in the Upper House). Barring dissolution of the Lower House, it will be three years until the next national election, potentially providing Abe with the window he needs to push through his ambitious agenda.

Q2: Did nuclear energy policy figure in this election?

A2: Mr. Abe campaigned almost exclusively on economic issues, generally avoiding nuclear issues.  He has repeatedly stated that the government should approve reactors for restart if they meet new regulatory standards, while stressing the importance of winning local government “understanding.”  Two days before the Upper House elections, protestors condemned candidates’ avoidance of nuclear energy issues. The candidates themselves appear starkly divided on nuclear power, with only 25% of winning LDP candidates saying that they view nuclear plants as necessary to Japan’s wellbeing, according to a post-election poll by the Mainichi Shimbun.

Most accounts viewed the election results primarily as a referendum on Abe’s economic policies, commonly dubbed “Abenomics.” In exit polls conducted by the Yomiuri Shimbun, 30% of voters listed the economy as the most important issue, with only 13% placing nuclear issues at the top of their priorities. Support for nuclear technology exports is slightly higher, with the same poll reporting that only 48% of the LDP winners are calling for increased exports, a relatively low number for the party given Mr. Abe’s aggressive promotion of Japanese nuclear technology abroad in countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Turkey.

According to recent polls, a majority of the Japanese public remains opposed to restarting nuclear power plants, but this hovers now at 55% rather than 80% following Fukushima. At the local level, 49% of mayors reported that they would approve reactor restarts if certain safety conditions are met.

Q3: What can we expect next for Japanese nuclear energy policy?

A3: Currently, four utilities have applied for safety evaluations of 12 reactors at six plants. Japan’s new Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) has stated that it can review three reactors simultaneously over six months. A pace of restarting 6 nuclear reactors per year would require more than 8 years to bring all reactors back on-line.  It is expected that Japan’s 26 boiling water reactors may require lengthier reviews.  In addition, the NRA may feel extra scrutiny as it tries to win credibility not just in Japan but worldwide, making expedited reviews and early clearance unlikely.

Legally, NRA safety clearance and central government authorization are the only requirements for reactors to restart, but local governments have always been given implicit veto power. Tokyo Electric recently withdrew two safety review applications after local governments protested their submissions.

With the Diet elections behind him, Prime Minister Abe can now release his comprehensive energy plan.  However, he himself has argued that a true assessment of long-term nuclear energy needs could take up to 10 years to complete. In all likelihood, the success of Abe’s nuclear agenda will rest upon the success of his economic agenda. If the public and his party remain confident in the direction of Abe’s economic policies, he will likely be able to sell nuclear energy as an integral part of his vision.

Sharon Squassoni is director and senior fellow with the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Ryan Gorman is an intern with the CSIS Proliferation Prevention Program.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Sharon Squassoni

Ryan Gorman