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Saturday, Sep 6, 2014

Asia

Japan places political star at heart of nuclear revival

AFP | Saturday, Sep 6, 2014

Japan's Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yuko Obuchi and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

TOKYO - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may have hoped that a 40-year-old mother-of-two with impeccable political pedigree might prove the acceptable face of nuclear power when he appointed her industry minister.

But, say observers, Yuko Obuchi will have her work cut out convincing a public still badly scarred by the Fukushima disaster that it is safe to switch the country's 48 atomic reactors back on.

"I too am raising children," Obuchi told a press conference shortly after being made Japan's first female minister of economy, trade and industry.

"If people say they are worried, I think it is only natural. If you are a mother, I think it is a kind of feeling that everyone has. The central government must offer a full explanation to these sentiments." Naming a young mother to the job was "a cunning move by Mr Abe", said Greenpeace Japan's Kazue Suzuki, because the implicit message is that if someone who has children says nuclear power is safe, it sounds more credible.

But Suzuki said people would not fall for that kind of sleight of hand, and that if Obuchi wants to represent them she should speak out against nuclear restarts.

"When (Obuchi) makes decisions, she should consider the reaction of ordinary women, the majority of whom do not want nuclear power stations reactivated," Suzuki said.

Obuchi, the daughter of one-time prime minister Keizo Obuchi, is a rising star in the establishment Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and, having first been a minister at the age of 34, holds the record as the youngest woman ever to make the grade.

Now, as industry minister, her portfolio includes overseeing the power industry.

Hostile communities

Since the 2011 disaster at Fukushima, where a tsunami knocked out cooling systems and sent reactors into meltdown, Japan's entire nuclear stable has gone offline, taking with it more than a quarter of the country's electricity supply.

That has left resource-starved Japan reliant on expensive fossil fuel imports, which has played havoc with the balance of payments and has pushed up prices for hard-pressed consumers.

At her inaugural press conference, Obuchi repeated the Abe administration line that policy remained "to reduce our reliance on nuclear plants by actively introducing renewable energy and thorough energy saving".

But, she added: "We will restart (nuclear plants) by making safety our priority".

The new minister highlighted the importance of earning the "understanding of hosting communities", who may be hostile to the prospect of firing up nearby reactors, despite beefed up safety rules and - by Japanese regulatory standards - a ferocious new watchdog.

Obuchi is expected to visit the crippled Fukushima plant in the coming days, as well as the Sendai nuclear power station in southwestern Kyushu, whose two reactors are the most likely candidates for restart in the coming months.

Japan's nuclear regulator could confirm the two units' safety as soon as next week, having considered the nearly 17,000 public comments received since it announced the Sendai plant's re-evaluation in July.

Junichi Takase, politics professor at Nagoya University of Foreign Affairs, dismissed speculation that Obuchi's appointment was a cynical ploy. Rather, he says, she got the job because she is a capable individual with a bright future.

"Japanese people are no fools, and they know there will be no change in the safety of nuclear plants just because the minister changes," he said.

"At this point (the prime minister has) no intention to use her politically to make the restart of nuclear reactors easier.

"In the future, if she moves near a nuclear plant with her two children and says 'it's safe', then that would mean her status as a mother would be being politically used. But it's not at this point," he said.

Political talents notwithstanding, Obuchi is facing an uphill challenge, says Hikaru Hiranuma, a research fellow at The Tokyo Foundation, a think tank.

"She needs to address several difficult issues: safety at nuclear plants, preparations in case of an accident such as evacuation schemes and drills, compensation for accident victims and how to dispose of spent nuclear fuel," he said.

"It will be difficult for her to justify the government's plan to continue using nuclear as an important source of power, unless she comes up with answers to these challenges."

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