Renewables Update

The Tokyo Gubernatorial Election and Nuclear Power

31 January 2014 Teruyuki Ohno,Executive Director, Japan Renewable Energy Foundation

An argument exists that the issue of nuclear power is not a relevant major issue for the upcoming Tokyo gubernatorial election. Tokyo faces many challenges, such as an aging infrastructure, disaster prevention and mitigation, waiting lists for nursery schools, and senior citizens living alone. Therefore, the argument goes, this election should not be dominated by a single issue.

However, I strongly disagree with the view that nuclear power is the province of the national government alone and that local governments should stay away from the debate. This belief is based on my experience serving as head of the environmental bureau of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government after the March 2011 earthquake.

Tokyo was in crisis mode after the earthquake damaged TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Although the worst-case scenario of the entire city being exposed to high levels of radiation happened to be avoided because of weather conditions at the time, the incident and the invisible contamination scared many residents. The local government’s waterworks and garbage workers had to deal with nuclear contamination for the first time in their lives.

Residents of Tokyo and those working in the city experienced firsthand the vulnerability of the country’s electricity supply system, which was heavily dependent on a large centralized power source (i.e., nuclear power), after the rolling blackouts of March 2011 and power usage restrictions of July and August of the same year. Since electricity directly affects people’s lives and business activities, this important issue should be discussed not only on the national level, but also on the local.

The experience of Tokyo after the earthquake suggests the possibility of the city being able to maintain its growth without relying on nuclear power. Tokyo has sought to reduce energy use as part of an effort to cope with global warming. Based on these efforts, the city has already cut power use by more than 10% since the earthquake. As a matter of fact, the maximum use of electricity during the summer peak period in the broader Tokyo metropolitan area has been reduced by an amount equivalent to ten nuclear reactors. The use of decentralized power sources, such as renewable energy and co-generation systems, has also been accelerating.

Tokyo’s efforts became a model for other areas, such as Kansai in western Japan, as power saving has become a major concern after all Japan’s nuclear reactors were shut down. Many companies that had implemented energy-saving measures at their Tokyo headquarters also adopted similar steps at branches in other parts of the country. Overseas companies, such as a major French utility, sent representatives to Tokyo to find out how the city survived the summer heat without nuclear power.

The Tokyo metropolitan government does not have the authority to approve or reject nuclear power. Neither does Tokyo have a nuclear plant, unlike some prefectures that have signed nuclear reactor agreements with utilities. However, there are many things that a local government can do within the current institutional framework.

The government of Tokyo has come up with a number of pioneering measures in a variety of fields including the environment, welfare, and city planning, by overcoming limitations imposed by the existing framework. If Tokyo has a leader with the vision to create a vibrant society that does not depend on nuclear power, Tokyo could potentially become the world’s utmost city in this respect. The city would also be able to represent Japan’s other local governments that are seeking to shift away from nuclear power. This would definitely exert an influence on the national government and its energy policy.

With the shift of energy supply structure from large-scale and centralized to a more decentralized system, local governments, municipalities, and communities will play an increasingly important role in the formulation of energy policies in the future.

The Tokyo gubernatorial election has always preempted change for the rest of the nation. I hope that nuclear power will be a major point of contention at the upcoming election, and that this will build the momentum needed to realize the shift to a safe and sustainable energy system, so that people of Japan and the world will never again experience such horrors and fear as that caused by the March 11, 2011 disaster.

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