Japan: Elections May Upend LDP's Nuclear-Friendly Policies

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Japan's nuclear lobby faces an uncertain future with the imminent approach of back-to-back elections that may threaten the conservative Liberal Democratic Party's (LDP) parliamentary majority and the staying power of its nuclear-friendly energy policies.

By suddenly dropping out of the LDP presidency election Sep. 3, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga effectively tendered his resignation and triggered a shake-up in Tokyo's national leadership that will not be fully resolved until early December. LDP parliamentarians and members will select a new president Sep. 29. The winner will be confirmed as prime minister shortly thereafter by the Diet's House of Representatives; but the House must then hold a general election by late November and the new lower house will then elect a new prime minister.

A prime driver of Suga's decision to step down were plunging approval rates: Only 30% approving of his cabinet's performance with 50% dissatisfied as of Sep. 14, compared to a positive 62% and negative 13% rating just after he replaced Shinzo Abe as prime minister last September. Discontent is especially marked with the government's vaccination and Covid-19 response policies, according to the benchmark NHK monthly polls.

In a ceremony Sep. 17 at the ruling party's Tokyo headquarters, LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai oversaw the acceptance of the candidacies of four LDP senior politicians, including Minister for Administrative and Regulatory Reform and Vaccine Promotion Taro Kono, endorsed by Suga, former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, former Interior Affairs Minister Sanae Takaichi, backed by Abe, and acting party Executive Secretary-General Seiko Noda.

Old School Versus New

"This is a contest for leadership between the old school and the new generations" in the LDP, a Japanese political scientist told Energy Intelligence Sep. 15. Although the primary issues concern Covid-19 pandemic control and economic and financial policy, the candidates' different views on energy policy, including the relative role of nuclear power and renewable energy in meeting Japan's climate goals, have attracted more attention than usual.

The election campaign coincides with the month-long public comment period on the sixth basic energy plan which began Sep. 3. This sparked renewed contention by big business and power interests over the success of Kono and Environmental Minister Shinjiro Koizumi in securing priority for renewables in the penultimate draft approved in mid-July, the dropping of any mandate for reactor replacements or newbuilds.

So far, none of the candidates has publicly challenged Suga's October 2020 declaration to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and his promise to cut emissions 46% from fiscal 2013 levels by fiscal 2030. By contrast Abe had committed to only a 26% reduction.

Kono pushed for the setting of a 2030 target of "36%-38% or more" for renewables in the power mix, implying that there was no ceiling on renewables' expansion. In his administrative and regulatory reform commission, Kono also backed a task force to "re-examine" regulations that restrict renewable access to grids and other impediments.

Koizumi, who declared Sep. 17 that "energy policy change is a fight against vested interests," has endorsed Kono and stated that nuclear's target share should be "20%-22% or less."

Since declaring his candidacy, Kono has advocated "realistic energy policies that will allow industry to have peace of mind." Kono has also said in interviews that he believes nuclear power will eventually be phased out, but "not tomorrow," and that existing reactors that are safe should be restarted, although newbuilds are "unrealistic."

Kono remains outspoken in opposing current nuclear fuel cycle policies and in a televised interview Sep. 11 said that "we have no choice but to put it on the table and discuss what to do with nuclear waste," according to the Tokyo Shimbun.

None of the other contenders has a strong background in energy, but both Kishida and Takaichi view nuclear power as a key source of baseload power. Kishida, endorsed by nuclear-friendly Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry Chief Hiroshi Kajiyama, has called for stronger government support for both renewables and fusion research as well as for continuing Japan's current nuclear fuel cycle policy, but is cautious about newbuilds. Takaicihi advocates for more restarts and the installation of small modular reactors.

The anxiety felt by nuclear power operators over a possible Kono-led Cabinet was reflected in a statement by Federation of Electric Power Companies (FEPC) President Kazuhiro Ikebe, who is also chairman of the Kyushu Electric Power Co. He called the emissions goals “ambitious” and declared that “it is necessary to send a clear message at an early stage for the sustainable utilization of nuclear power, which is a quasi-domestic power source and also a CO2 zero emission power source.”

"Kono would be a disaster to the FEPC as he is strongly anti-nuclear even though he conceals this attitude at present, while both Kishida and Takaichi are supportive of nuclear power," a senior industry professional told Energy Intelligence.

What the Polls Show

An opinion poll published by TV Asahi Sep. 14 showed that 33% of eligible voters preferred Kono, followed by former party secretary-general and ex-defense minister Shigeru Ishiba with 16%, Kishida with 14%, Takaichi with 8% and Nodo with 3%. But public opinion will not necessarily translate into victory in the LDP presidential poll, which will combine 383 ballots chosen by 1.1 million LDP members on a proportional basis, and 383 votes to be cast by each of the party's upper and lower house parliamentarians.

Hence, despite being the most popular candidate in opinion polls, Kono faces an uphill battle to win support from established politicians, as shown by the fact that he cannot secure the full support of his own faction led by Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso. Kono reportedly hopes to come close to a draw in the faction-based parliamentary balloting and win in the at-large membership vote. His drive got a lift Sep. 14 when the popular Ishiba decided not to run and endorsed Kono. However, Noda's last minute entry raised the chances that no candidate will win the necessary 384 votes for an outright win.

"Kishida would hold the advantage in a runoff as Abe would likely shift his backing from Takaichi to Kishida to keep Kono out of the presidency," said the aforementioned Japanese political scientist. Such a result would be reassuring to the nuclear industry, especially since Kishida would presumably be beholden to nuclear-friendly Abe, despite reported enmity between the two longtime LDP rivals.

However, the leadership contest will not be completed until after the upcoming lower house election in which the LDP will face both a discontented electorate and an anti-nuclear opposition more united and better coordinated than in the last general election on Oct. 22, 2017, in which the LDP and its coalition partner Komeito won a two-thirds majority.

Yukio Edano, who leads the opposition as well as the Constitutional Democratic Party, "does not like the prospects of Kono winning as he could be a tough prime minister, but instead would prefer someone less colorful and more like typical LDP politicians," the political scientist told Energy Intelligence.

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