On 14 September this year, one and a half years after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident, the Japanese Government released an unprecedented document.
The "Innovative Energy and Environment Strategy", the culmination of a year-long policy review process, set the previously unthinkable target of zero nuclear energy by the end of the 2030s. In resolving to phase out nuclear energy, the Japanese Government did what it had never done before in the energy policy field: it allowed itself to be influenced by the will of the people.
The backlash was immediate. Business groups banded together to condemn the strategy, governors of prefectures hosting nuclear facilities expressed concern about the future of these facilities and, perhaps equally significant, the governments of France, the UK and the United States communicated their displeasure. In the face of this onslaught the government went weak at the knees and failed to give the strategy formal cabinet endorsement.
When the direction of the energy policy review process was first announced at the end of July 2011 a so-called "national debate" was firmly on the agenda, but before it could begin, the parameters had to be established. A series of committees spent the better part of a year drafting policy options for the public to consider. Then in July and August this year the public was invited to consider three options for the proportion of nuclear energy in Japan's electricity generation mix in 2030: zero, 15 per cent, or 20 to 25 per cent.
The national debate, which involved public comments, public hearings and a deliberative poll, took place against a backdrop of massive protests against Japan's nuclear power plants. Every Friday evening, tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of people turned out in Tokyo's political district to protest. Unlike past protest movements, this one did not have any clear organisational backing, so it could not be dismissed as "the usual suspects".
Despite the protests the outcome must have surprised the government. It appears that 15 per cent nuclear was their preferred option, but the overwhelming majority of participants in the public hearings and nearly all the 90,000 public comments favoured a total phase out. In many cases they didn't want to wait till 2030; they wanted Japan's nuclear power plants to be permanently closed down now.
The outcome of the deliberative poll was not so overwhelming, but in some ways it was even stronger evidence of public support for a nuclear phase out. The support for the zero option among the almost 300 randomly selected participants in the two day event became more and more pronounced as the deliberative process proceeded.
Presented with such a conclusive rejection of nuclear energy in a public participation process on which it had staked its credibility, the government was forced to bend. It had to include the "zero" word somehow. But the strategy that it came up with was patently contradictory, purporting to support the continuation of the existing nuclear fuel cycle policy and stretching out the phase out deadline to the end of the 2030s, while providing no credible pathway to zero.
France and the UK's public reaction to the Innovative Energy and Environment Strategy related to Japan's responsibility to accept the return of radioactive waste from spent nuclear fuel reprocessed in their countries. However the response of the United States was more complex.
The United States is concerned about the proliferation implications of Japan's massive plutonium stockpile, which currently stands at 44 tons, enough to make over 5000 Nagasaki-style bombs. If Japan goes ahead with its nuclear fuel cycle program, in particular reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, this plutonium stockpile will grow even larger. But if Japan intends to phase out nuclear power, it will have no reactors in which to use this plutonium.
The US Government could have responded in either of two ways: by stating that it would retract permission to reprocess spent nuclear fuel sourced in the United States, or by pushing Japan to retract its nuclear phase out strategy. It has certainly expressed its concern about the implications of the contradictory strategy for Japan's plutonium stockpile, but it seems to be emphasising the latter approach, namely calling for Japan to remain committed to nuclear power.
At least one of its motivations is not hard to fathom. In recent years Japan has become more than just a customer for the US nuclear industry. The current state of US nuclear industry is such that it would be hard pressed to construct nuclear power plants without Japanese cooperation. In fact, Toshiba now owns Westinghouse, while GE's nuclear operations are run through subsidiaries jointly owned with Hitachi.
The Innovative Energy and Environment Strategy was considered by Cabinet on 19 September, five days after it was released, but to everyone's surprise cabinet did not formally endorse the document. It simply noted it, saying, "The Government of Japan will implement future policies on energy and the environment, taking into account of the Innovative Strategy on Energy and the Environment."
On 22 September the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper reported that the US Government had demanded that no cabinet decision endorsing the strategy be made. Other newspapers reported that the US Government was pressuring Japan to abandon its nuclear phase out aspirations.
More recently a series of statements by former senior US officials and advisors suggests a concerted campaign could be underway to intimidate the Japanese Government. These people claim that Japan without nuclear power would be bad for nuclear non-proliferation. The basis for this claim is not fears about Japan's plutonium stockpile. Rather it is that allegedly Japan without an active nuclear power program would be less able to support the United States' non-proliferation efforts.
John Hamre, a former US deputy secretary of defense, said, "The champions of proliferation prevention were the United States, Europe and Japan. … [I]f Japan stops being nuclear, if America stops being nuclear, if Europe stops being (a collection of) nuclear power countries, who is going to run the global system of security and safety?" This says nothing for the counter-argument that Japan as a leader in renewable energy and energy efficiency would be a powerful advocate for a nuclear-free future.
The question arises, will the public will expressed in the national debate be over-ridden by pressure from overseas? Will the first tentative steps towards participatory democracy in Japan's energy policy be thus undermined?
The United States has no right to tell the Japanese whether or not they should phase out nuclear power. On the other hand, countries like Australia which have nuclear cooperation agreements with Japan have a legitimate right to demand that Japan not add to its plutonium stockpile. They have every right to demand that Japan not separate any more plutonium at its reprocessing plant in Rokkasho.
A national election is scheduled for 16 December. Due to the general confusion in Japanese politics the election may not deliver the type of clear verdict on nuclear energy that one would otherwise expect. But whatever the outcome, Japan is undergoing a historic shift in its energy policy. The Japanese people need international support in this process, but they don't need to be bullied.