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Wednesday
Sep192012

Japan, Under Pressure, Backs Off Goal to Phase Out Nuclear Power by 2040

TOKYO — In an abrupt turnabout, the Japanese government on Wednesday stopped short of formally adopting the momentous goal it announced just last week — to phase out nuclear power by 2040 — after the plan drew intense opposition from business groups and communities whose economies depend on local nuclear power plants.

The cabinet of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said it would “take into consideration” the 2040 goal, but formally endorsed only a vague promise to “engage in debate with local governments and international society and to gain public understanding” in deciding Japan’s economic future in the wake of the 2011 nuclear disaster at Fukushima. Energy policy will be developed “with flexibility, based on tireless verification and re-examination,” the cabinet’s resolution read.

A day earlier, the chairmen of Japan’s most prominent business associations, including the influential Keidanren group, called a rare joint news conference to demand that Mr. Noda abandon the 2040 goal. On Wednesday, they praised the cabinet’s decision.

The deadline “was not a viable option in the first place,” Tadashi Okamura, chairman of the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said at a news conference.

Nuclear critics had been suspicious of the government’s promise last week, saying the announced plans were vague and drawn out, and included troubling loopholes. On Wednesday, after the cabinet’s rollback, they called the government indecisive and weak-kneed.

We’ve only seen the government strike compromise after compromise with the business community,” said Hideyuki Ban, secretary general of a nuclear watchdog, the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center.

Motohisa Furukawa, the national strategy minister, announced the original plan last week, releasing a document titled the “Revolutionary Energy and Environment Strategy” that said Japan would seek to eliminate nuclear power within 28 years through greater reliance on renewable energy, conservation and the use of fossil fuels. On Wednesday, he defended the cabinet’s omission of the 2040 deadline, saying the government had intended to use it as a reference point.

It is just a matter of decision-making, and there is no real change to content,” he said.

But to critics, the cabinet’s move cast into further doubt Japan’s commitment to ending its nuclear power program, first made in July 2011 by Naoto Kan, who was then prime minister. Since September, his successor, Mr. Noda, has pushed to restart the energy-poor country’s shuttered reactors while making vague promises to “reduce Japan’s nuclear dependence.”

Japan got about 30 percent of its electricity from 54 reactors across the country — and planned to increase its reliance to 50 percent — before damage from a powerful tsunami in March 2011 led to multiple meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant and vast radiation leaks. All but two of the plants remain closed.

Mr. Noda was forced to consider alternative energy sources after a series of public hearings held by the government after the Fukushima disaster showed overwhelming support for phasing out nuclear power. The unmistakable theme of the hearings was mistrust of the government’s ability to oversee nuclear safety.

But business groups criticized any move away from nuclear power as impractical and a death knell for Japanese manufacturers, which have already lost much of their competitive edge to cheaper rivals elsewhere in Asia. And communities across Japan that host nuclear facilities feared losing government subsidies, tax revenues and jobs. They also worried that they would become the final dumping ground for spent nuclear fuel stored at their plants.

The government’s reversal came as it officially opened a new agency on Wednesday to oversee the nuclear industry, a bid to regain the public’s trust. Japan got rid of its previous nuclear regulator after criticism that it had been drawn into a cozy, collusive relationship with plant operators and had failed to take the necessary steps to prevent a disaster like Fukushima.

But the new body has already come under fire, with criticism focusing on Shunichi Tanaka, the head of a five-person committee that would set nuclear policy and retain oversight over the new agency.

Mr. Tanaka is considered suspect by those who favor tighter regulation because he helped lead a former government commission tasked with building a strong nuclear industry, raising fears that the new regulator will be as lax as the previous one.

Yukio Edano, the minister of economy, trade and industry, said that the new regulatory framework ensured that there was “a strict separation between those who regulate nuclear power and those who use it.”

The government will help create “the highest-level regulations and disaster-preparedness plans in the world,” Mr. Edano said.

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