In Japan, wives aren’t part of the show. Back in the day, they walked a few feet behind their husbands. Old couples can still be seen progressing down the sidewalk in that manner. In politics, wives still aren’t part of the show – though recently, they’ve been seen deplaning with their husbands when they alight in Western countries, even holding hands while waving to photographers.
But when a wife suddenly invites herself to the show, and not demurely behind or next to her husband, but vocally at the opposite end of where he stands, it causes a stir. In particular if she takes on the nuclear power industry.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as part of Abenomics, wants to restore the nuclear power industry to its formerly omnipotent glory and bring its reactors back on line that were shut down after the Fukushima fiasco – regardless of how many people might oppose it. And there are a lot of them, 58% most recently; only 28% were for it. The survey didn’t even include any respondents from Fukushima Prefecture who might have been slightly biased!
He also wants to export Japan’s wonderfully reliable nuclear technology. Turkey already signed a deal in May for a big plant on its Black Sea coast. The United Arab Emirates signed a nuclear cooperation agreement. Negotiations are going on with customers in Asia. When Abe met with French President Hollande in Tokyo, they too talked about nuclear cooperation.
But at a closed-door event organized by a non-profit dedicated to revitalizing regional economies hard-hit by depopulation, his wife, Akie Abe, gave a speech. And a video of the speech has now appeared. “I am opposed to nuclear power, and my heart aches,” she said.
“I feel bad that Japan is trying to sell nuclear power plants overseas because I am anti-nuclear,” she said. Instead, Japan should redirect “part of the money being spent on nuclear power” to renewable energy projects. And the country should focus on selling Japanese-made clean energy technologies abroad, she said.
Even if it comes at a price. In May, Makoto Yagi, Chairman of the Federation of Electric Power Companies (FEPC), discussed the electricity supply and demand outlook for the summer, a delicate ritual since Fukushima, associated with threats of electricity shortages and rolling blackouts, impossible cut-back targets for electricity use, and visions of sweltering offices. But this time, he was more relaxed – thanks to “the enormous efforts of all our customers to save electricity which have now taken root,” he said. Instead of draconian cut-back targets of 10% or 20%, he asked for “a reasonable level” on business days between July 1 and September 30, “with as little impact as possible on the lives of the people and economic activities.”
In 2010, nuclear power provided 28.6% of Japan’s electricity – the recent high was 30.8% in 2005 – but following the Fukushima fiasco, the remaining 50 functional reactors were shut down one after the other, and for a few months last year, nuclear energy provided 0%. Then, after two reactors at the Ohi plant were restarted last year, nuclear energy rose to 1.7% of the mix.
The rest had to be made up through other sources of power. In 2012, geothermal and “new energies” accounted for 1.6%, hydropower for 8.4%. Thermal power, which used to provide about 60% of the mix, soared to 88.4%, with Liquefied Natural Gas accounting for 42.5%, coal for 27.6%, and petroleum for 18.3%. The cost of fuel more than doubled from ¥3.7 trillion ($37 billion) in 2010 to ¥7.8 trillion ($78 billion) in 2012.
But even reactors that are off line are expensive to maintain. And they don’t produce revenues. Consequently, most of Japan’s ten mega-utilities, which have been bleeding copious quantities of red ink, applied for steep rate increases, and now businesses and consumers are paying out of their noses for juice.
Then, Chairman Yagi went astray. He said that nuclear power provided “cheap” electricity. Alas, TEPCO, the owner of the Fukushima nuke, was bailed out by taxpayers. And containing the nuclear catastrophe still playing out in Fukushima, decommissioning what’s left, and decontaminating the area may well end up costing the taxpayer $1 trillion after many decades of work. Part of the cost of nuclear power.
So Akie Abe had had enough. She described herself as “an opposition party within the family.” Which apparently makes for some interesting pillow talk about Abenomics. It’s not always easy. “When (the prime minister) gains power, it gradually becomes difficult for those around him to tell him what he does not want to be told,” she said, but… ”He had better hear something he does not want to hear.” Maybe she has a sense for money that her husband, who’s fantasizing about the boundless possibilities of printed money, no longer has – or never had.