Tone-deaf Abe forges ahead with nuclear restarts, other unpopular policies

People stage a sit-in rally outside the gates of the Kyushu Electric Power Sendai nuclear power plant on August 11, 2015, as the first reactor was brought back online. Restarts are part of a raft of unpopular policies that are being pushed by Abe's government.

Story highlights

  • Despite apprehension from his countrymen, Japanese PM forging ahead with nuclear power restarts
  • Safety monitoring framework unsound, says Tokyo-based academic Jeff Kingston
  • Despite a raft of unpopular policies, Abe remains politically secure -- for now

Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan. He's the author of "Asian Nationalism Since 1945." The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.

Tokyo, Japan (CNN)Last week, Japan's government restarted a controversial nuclear reactor, pushing ahead with plans to revive an industry that many Japanese remain critical -- and fearful -- of.

Japan's nuclear safety myth evaporated following the 2011 Fukushima disaster, where a huge earthquake and the subsequent tsunami caused a meltdown in three reactors at the northern Japanese plant.
    Following the incident, the government, along with the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), lost credibility as claims that they downplayed the severity of the accident, misled the public and left more than 100,000 nuclear refugees stranded in limbo emerged.
    Japanese citizens remain skeptical about nuclear power after media revelations about the cozy relations between safety watchdog authorities and the utility companies that compromised public safety.
    Three major investigations into the accident have detailed a series of errors, assumptions and omissions that enabled a culture of complacency to prevail -- safety inspectors are perceived as having deferred to the utilities, averted their eyes from violations and demonstrated an unseemly tolerance for best case scenarios.
    The utilities are also deemed to have ignored specific recommendations prior to the 2011 accident from safety officials -- a higher seawall, relocation of backup generators to a safer location and more backup electricity sources -- that in retrospect looks very sensible and would probably have ensured that Fukushima did not become Japan's Chernobyl.

    Shinzo Abe, "village" chief

    Japan's Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, is at the heart of the controversy and is often seen as the point man for the "nuclear village," the name used by Japanese to refer to the pro-nuclear advocates -- from the industry, big business, bureaucracy, politicians, the media and academia alike.
    It is well represented in the corridors of power, and Abe has vigorously promoted reactor restarts to cut fuel imports, bolster economic growth and to promote exports of Japanese nuclear knowhow and technology.
    Restarts are vital to Abe's hopes of promoting nuclear plant and technology exports as it's hard to make a sales pitch if the country's reactors are shut down for safety reasons.
    As the Sendai nuclear reactor fired up again, Abe was touting Japan's nuclear safety regulations as the world's strictest.
    But such rhetorical grandstanding aside, the staff of the new Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA) -- the body now tasked with overseeing safety standards -- is almost entirely culled from the discredited Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency that was supposed to be ensuring compliance with regulations before Fukushima, but failed to do so.

    The foxes guarding the henhouse

    Utilities have spent a lot of money in upgrading safety standards in terms of hardware such as higher seawalls, better vents and safer remote command centers, but the investigations reveal that poor emergency equipment training was a major factor in the accident, and there was a lack of drills aimed at helping workers cope with managing an accident under stressful conditions.
    The International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) recently-released postmortem on the Fukushima nuclear accident makes for grim reading, and a timely reminder of the pitfalls of restarting Japan's nuclear program prematurely. Given that the IAEA was established to promote atomic energy, its harsh assessments are all the more disturbing.
    The IAEA highlights the need for proper preparation for evacuations, something that is well beyond the capacity of the hosting communities that are responsible for this. Simulations of an evacuation around Sendai illustrate just how hard this will be even under best-case scenarios.
    The NRA will still rely extensively on plant operators reporting and self-inspections to ensure compliance with regulations. Given that all the utilities operating reactors admitted they faked their repair and maintenance data, why trust them now?

    Deeply unpopular policies, but a stranglehold on power?

    So how is Abe able to go ahead with the restarts in the face of majority public opposition? For one thing, he has avoided holding a referendum on an issue he knows he would lose.
    Instead, he relies on the pro-nuclear NRA to assess applications for restarts -- some 25 have been filed -- and once it gives the green light there is consultation with local hosting communities, often reliant on the stations for their economies -- to secure final approval.
    Currently, preparations for restarts are underway in Shikoku Island and also in Fukui Prefecture on the main island of Honshu.
    So even though only about one quarter of Japanese support restarts and some 60% oppose, the nuclear village is relying on the public growing weary and resigned.
    Indeed, the media reaction to this most recent restart was fairly muted, a stark contrast to the immediate aftermath of Fukushima. The nuclear village has survived the perfect storm and energy policy is settling back in, with the government officially targeting 22-24% of electricity coming from nuclear energy by 2030.

    The Teflon PM

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    Abe remains relatively popular -- he boasts a nearly 40% approval rate -- despite the fact that a majority of Japanese oppose every single one of his signature policy initiatives.
    Few Japanese support the state secrets legislation and the new security laws that lift constitutional constraints on Japan's military, nor do they support his patriotic education or lifting of the ban on arms exports. But his opposition, feeble and divided, has been unable to take advantage.
    Among those who support Abe, a majority say it is because there is no alternative, not that they agree with his policy agenda. It's a situation that could potentially leave him vulnerable, if a credible alternative could be unearthed.
    Now that Abenomics, his signature economic policy, designed to lift Japan out of decades-long doldrums, appears to be fizzling, there is a possibility that the public mood could swing against him before next summer's parliamentary elections.
    The opposition has also announced plans to present a much more unified front, eroding a typical advantage enjoyed by Abe's leading Liberal Democratic Party -- it has typically won elections with support of only about 25% of eligible voters, benefiting from low turnout and a fractured opposition.
    The massive demonstrations this summer outside the Diet, protesting Abe's security legislation, have been seen as a barometer of pubic sentiment.
    At the end of August, the largest demonstration in Tokyo since the turbulent 1960s saw crowds demanding Abe's resignation, carrying placards depicting him dressed up like Hitler and others mocking him as a puppet of the U.S.
    But despite an unpopular raft of policies, at the moment it's Abe's election to lose.
    He is shoring up his loyalists in an attempt to retain power, while signaling his intention to remain in power until 2018.
    That will be the 150th anniversary of the Meiji restoration, the end of the Shogunate and the beginning of Japan's modernization.
    But many voters are looking enviously at a much more recent precedent, across the Pacific Ocean to Australia, where it seems so much easier to get rid of unpopular, unwanted leaders.