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Keidanren chief defends nuclear power generation

What did he mean to say? At a Jan. 15 press conference, Japan Business Federation (Keidanren) Chairman Hiroaki Nakanishi commented that reactors that have been shut down since the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant “should be restarted one after another.” On the other hand, in his beginning-of-the-year interview, he said that “we cannot build what the public opposes.” There seem to be a contradiction in his two arguments, but an in-depth analysis to these remarks reveals his cleverness as a business person.  


“Offline nuclear reactors should be restarted one after another,” said Nakanishi at the regular press conference on Jan. 15. “However, local municipalities [that host nuclear plants] will not say “yes,” in which case offline reactors can’t be restarted. Some people may say, ‘Utilities should persuade local governments on their own responsibility.’ But that cannot resolve the situation. That is why this matter needs to be discussed in public.”


Asked about his view on nuclear power generation as Keidanren chairman, he pointed out the lack of public understanding for the government’s nuclear policy. “I don’t think renewable energy alone is sufficient to meet the nation’s energy demand,” he said. “Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a big challenge, but more than 80% of Japan’s electricity is generated from burning fossil fuel.”


Keidanren has long supported the government’s policy to promote nuclear power generation. Besides being Keidanren chief, Nakanishi also serves as chairman of Hitachi, a producer of reactor equipment. This well explains why he advocates the restart of offline reactors. Nonetheless, many people were puzzled by his Jan. 15 comment that “reactors should be restarted one after another,” because of what he said when he met the press for the New Year’s interview.


In the interview, he commented: “We cannot build what the public opposes. Japan would cease to be a democratic nation if energy firms and vendors build nuclear facilities in the face of public opposition.” In less than a month after this interview, he called for the restart of reactors “one after another.” What does this mean?


Tetsunari Iida, executive director of Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, gives the following analysis: “He has not given up on nuclear projects. He wants the reactors restarted, but this is impossible because of strong opposition. This dilemma is behind what he said. He was expressing his complaint as well as his true feelings.”


The export of nuclear technology, a signature project pursued by the Abe government, is getting derailed. Hitachi decided to freeze a nuclear power project in the U.K. as it faced difficulty in securing financial cooperation from domestic partners as well as support from the British government. Toshiba was also forced to scrap its nuclear project in the U.S. because it incurred a loss of about 1.4 trillion yen from a business involving a U.S. nuclear engineering firm that it acquired. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries will likely give up its nuclear plant construction in Turkey. Hitachi’s suspension of the U.K. project resulted in a loss of about 300 billion yen.


“Given that Hitachi’s reactor business is hitting a snag and the company is incurring a massive loss, Nakanishi may have thought that he could make it up at home,” Iida said.


Another expert analyzes that Nakanishi is pushing back against the government. “Hitachi is concerned that the nuclear export business may tarnish its reputation and this may have an adverse impact on its home appliance business and stock prices,” said Masaaki Fukunaga, a visiting professor at Gifu Women’s University. “His argument is that the export of nuclear technology is a national policy so the government is responsible for convincing the public, and that’s not what companies or the business community should do.”


Fukunaga argues that Nakanshi’s Dec. 17 press conference also implies his support for the restart of reactors. On the nuclear business, Nakanishi proposed the construction of new reactors as a solution to global warming and pointed that land for building facilities to generate renewable energy is limited. “His position to support the restart of reactors remains unchanged,” he said.


Keinichi Oshima, a professor at Ryukoku University, sees through Nakanishi’s hard-nosed sense of maneuvering. “Nakanishi’s argument is that the nuclear energy business is not profitable, but the business community has long supported it because it is a national policy,” he said. “Nakanishi is probably pushing the government to extend more solid backing.”


Nakanishi is proposing a “public debate,” for which it is obviously a categorical imperative to continue nuclear power generation. “Any business that can’t exist without the backing of the government is not in the least feasible,” Oshima said. “Now that the export of nuclear technology is hitting a snag, the government should think twice about this policy.”

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