Say what you will about the LDP, but the party has been fairly open about its preference for nuclear energy and restarting Japan's idled reactors as soon as possible.
The party may be about to get its wish.
On July 8th, four regional power companies will apply to the Nuclear Regulation Authority to begin compulsory inspections as a first step towards restarting their reactors. It will be months before the inspections will be concluded and plants reopened, but Monday appears to mark the beginning of the reintroduction of nuclear energy to Japan's energy mix in a significant way.
The NRA is central to the LDP's and Abe's soft-pedaling of the nuclear issue. Lest the Abe government be faced with this...
|Source: Asahi Shimbun, Asia & Japan Watch, 30 June 2012|
As long as the authority was not yet reviewing applications to restart reactors, deferring to the authority was an easy position to take. But now both the authority and the Abe government will be tested. For the NRA, it will be tested to show its independence from political decision makers, who have said they will respect the authority's decisions but have made no secret in wanting reactors put back online as soon as possible. For Abe, the pledge to defer to the NRA's judgment will be equally tested, especially if the authority rules against fast restarts for some reactors.
Perhaps the best outcome for both parties would be for some reactors to be restarted and others rejected for the time being, thereby allowing Abe to show his willingness to respect the NRA's decisions while still pocketing the political benefits of less dependence on imported energy. It might also defuse some of the political opposition — preventing demonstrations like those seen above, for example — by showing that the government really did defer to the regulators. It may also defuse some of the opposition from Komeito, the LDP's coalition partner. The latest Asahi polling, discussed here, shows that the public is still opposed to restarts by a considerable margin (29% in favor, 53% opposed), but the issue is a second-tier issue and it is by no means certain that Abe would face the kind of demonstrations his predecessors faced, especially if Abe can pass the buck for restarts to the NRA.
Meanwhile, by rejecting some applications for early restarts, the NRA could show its independence and demonstrate that it actually has some regulatory clout.
Mind you, it is beyond my expertise to say what the inspections actually will produce. (This NHK article [jp] has a decent rundown of the new regulations upon which inspections will be based.) But it does seem that, while the public is firmly opposed to restarts, there is a way for Abe to avoid taking a serious political blow from the nuclear question.