How local democracy shut down Japan’s nuclear power plants

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Fearing a public backlash at local polls, no local government would dare to re-start a reactor in their locality now. Anil Netto interviews Ohashi Masaaki.

Ohashi
Scholar activist Prof Ohashi Masaaki of Japan

In a lesson for countries everywhere, Japan’s vibrant local democracy is sealing the fate of the country’s once-entrenched network of nuclear power plants.

After the Fukushima disaster on 11 March 2011, the nuclear energy industry in Japan came under intense public scrutiny. Japan has 54 nuclear reactors in 17 locations. Already 52 reactors (including the eight in Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Station, four of which were damaged or had serious problems) have been stopped while the remaining two are coming up for periodic inspection.

Visting Japanese scholar-activist Ohashi Masaaki stresses that local government consent is essential for any reactor to be restarted. “This is the nice part of decentralisation,” says the professor of international development, NGO studies and South Asia studies at Keisen University, looking relaxed in his hotel room at the end of a whirlwind speaking tour to universities in Kuala Lumpur and Penang. “Although the central government wants to have a nuclear reactor, the local government has a right to say ‘No’.”

Finger on the local pulse

Local democracy has flourished in Japan with the enactment of the Local Autonomy Law in 1946. In fact, local governments play an instrumental role in disaster relief as well. Prefecture governments and social welfare councils, which have close relations with local governments, worked with civil society groups to organise large-scale relief efforts in the aftermath of the 11 March tragedy. The social welfare councils opened up ‘disaster volunteer centres’ and registered some 180000 volunteers in a day at the height of relief efforts.

Japan has a three-tier governing system. The highest tier is the central government.

The second tier is at the prefecture level (equivalent to states or counties). All in, there are 47 prefectures: the metropolitan district of Tokyo, the urban prefectures of Osaka and Kyoto, 43 rural prefectures, and the “district” of Hokkaido. These are presided by governors and governed by assemblies.

The third tier is at the local government or municipal level in cities as well as towns and villages outside the cities, each presided by a mayor and an elected council.

The prefecture governors and municipal mayors along with the respective assemblies are elected for four-year terms. But if there is a vote of no confidence, the assembly may be dissolved, and fresh elections held. In cases of major corruption or other controversial issues, the public may initiate a signature campaign calling for the dissolution of the council or the resignation of the mayor.

This system of local democracy heightens public accountability and ensures that municipal mayors and elected reps in local government keep their finger on the pulse of local sentiment. “The mayors are really afraid to easily say ‘yes’ (to nuclear reactors), because they will lose their positions in the next elections,” says Ohashi, who is also the chairperson of the Japan NGO Centre for International Cooperation. “The feeling among the people is that nuclear reactors are dangerous – now they understand. We really hope the same strong sentiment will be felt by other local governments, but some local governments face heavy pressure from the prefectures and central government.”

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A sense of betrayal

In the past, local governments talked up the benefits of having a reactor and even a nuclear waste processing facility in their midst. Residents bought the official line that these facilities would create jobs, draw young people in, raise local income and enable local governments to receive tax subsidies from the central government.

“The government and the companies repeatedly said, ‘No accidents, no leaking (would occur).’ So people were not prepared for disaster.” In fact, a poll in 2005 found that 82 per cent of people supported nuclear power plants. .

The central government had a tendency to select sites for reactors in regions with little industry and a shrinking population. “From our point of view this was internal discrimination,” laments Ohashi. And once a particular locality agreed to one nuclear reactor, the electricity company had a tendency to increase the number of reactors in that area because everyone else was saying ‘not-in-my-backyard’, he recalls. Fukushima, a less populated area known for its organic farming initiatives before the disaster, had eight reactors at the Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Station.

“Now those mayors in Fukushima feel betrayed as they used to believe (the electricity corporation) Tepco’s promises that the reactors were safe – but that was a myth.” Likewise, the people from Fukushima, now feel strongly against nuclear energy, reflecting a nationwide loss of faith in the industry and the government.

Former premier Naoto Kan, before his resignation last year, placed the bar higher to make a restart of the reactors more difficult. “He was almost going to be convinced to re-open some reactors. Then he finally said, no-no, (we will have) stress tests”. Every power station now has to undergo stress tests to see how they will hold up to large natural disasters.

Some nuclear power stations have completed these tests and submitted their reports to the local government, “but it’s a political matter now”. The local government and mayor may give the green light but if they do so, given the strong public opposition, they may not be re-elected in the next local government elections. “So this is the good part of decentralisation. The local government has a certain say,” says Ohashi. “People have a certain power. They have to be convinced.”

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Demonstrating that power, thousands have repeatedly taken to the streets in Tokyo and elsewhere to protest against nuclear power plants since the disaster. In one of the largest protests in recent times, 60000 people marched in Tokyo last September waving banners and chanting “Sayonara nuclear power!”

Anti-nucler power plant rally in Japan
Anti-nuclear power plant rally on 19 September 2011 at Meiji Shrine Outer Garden in Tokyo.

Japan’s current prime minister Yoshihiko Noda has taken note – even though he favours a restart of plants that have cleared the tests, preferring a gradual phase out. Bowing to the power of local democracy, he was reported as saying the plants would not be re-started without local community leaders giving the green light.

People power at Okinawa

Ohashi provides another example of local democracy at work – in Okinawa, where 70 per cent of total American military facilities in Japan are concentrated.

The central government decided that one of the US facilities, the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma base in the densely populated city of Ginowan in the centre of the island, should be relocated to ease congestion and tension.

When it was announced, many responded that the base should be relocated outside of Okinawa or better still, outside Japan. But that didn’t materialise and finally, it was decided that the base would be relocated to a less populated area within Okinawa.

But the local government of the town, the mayor of the town, and the prefecture governor were against the plan. The Okinawa government is demanding that the central government relocate the base elsewhere in Japan or outside Japan but not in Okinawa.”And now there is nowhere they can move the base – because if they (the local government) refuse, the central government cannot do anything.”

“Of course, if the central government wants to press ahead, they can still do it by passing an oppressive law or taking over the land, but I don’t think they would do that now.” Times have changed. “The central government did that (resort to forcible measures) when Narita Airport was being built about 50 years ago (without public consultation). Several people died during the protests, and I was also there.” Ohashi demonstrates with his hand how a tear gas projectile whizzed past his face, just inches away, killing a protester next to him.

Exporting unwanted technology

So is this the end of the nuclear energy industry in Japan?

Not quite. The Japanese government, now led by the Democratic Party of Japan, which defeated the dominant Liberal Party of Japan in the 2009 election, has decided to promote the export of nuclear energy technology. “It really wants to help the (Japanese nuclear energy) industry.” This is unlike the previous government, which did not have a clear policy on exports.

Last October, seven months after the Fukushima disaster, the International Nuclear Energy Development of Japan Co (Jined) signed an agreement with Electricity of Vietnam to build Vietnam’s second nuclear power plant. Jined, a consortium of nine electric power companies and three nuclear energy engineering companies, was set up in 2010 to promote the export of nuclear energy technology to emerging countries.

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Meanwhile, South Korea, under the ruling New Frontier Party, is carrying on where Japan left off. Within the country, it has 21 nuclear power plants, seven under construction and six more being planned. And it has just won a US$20bn contract to supply four nuclear reactors to UAE.

“We (Japan and Korea) are now competing with each other,” he laughs. “(Korea) is trying very hard to export (nuclear energy technology) and catch up with Japan.”

But inside Japan, no local government would dare to approve a reactor in their locality. As Ohashi explains, these local governments face the brunt of public reaction with elections held every four years. And for that reason, if not anything else, no mayor would want to betray the people by approving a nuclear power plant in their locality.

There is an interesting link to Australia as well. Just as Lynas Corporation plans to export rare earth from Australia to its rare earth refinery in Malaysia for processing and waste disposal, Australia also exported uranium to Japan to meet one fifth of Japan’s nuclear energy needs.

But Australia does not have a single rare earth refinery or nuclear power plant – even though it has 23 per cent of the world’s uranium deposits and is the world’s second largest producer of uranium. “That tells you a lot.”

“Learn from us”

What message does Oshahi have for the people of Malaysia? “They need to learn from our experience – before 11 March 2011 and after 11 March. Even though Japan was a victim of atomic bombs, we did not pay much attention to the so-called peaceful utilisation of nuclear energy. We accepted those things. But now we realise that nuclear is nuclear, which we cannot really handle properly.”

“Malaysia has all the freedom to utilise nuclear power stations or not. That’s up to you. But my strong message is, please be careful and please learn from our experience,” he almost pleads.

Local democracy must be allowed to flourish in municipal councils “so that we can have a space … we can convince local people because they have the right to vote” and choose a government that protects their interests.

His message delivered, the professor gathers his luggage and heads out to the Penang Airport to catch his flight home, leaving behind plenty of food for thought.

Anil Netto is honorary treasurer of Aliran.

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