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Japan Political Pulse: The deep meaning of the Takahama nuclear plant problem

The No. 3 (front) and No. 4 reactors at the Takahama Nuclear Power Plant are seen in this photo taken from a Mainichi helicopter in Takahama, Fukui Prefecture, on Feb. 29, 2016. (Mainichi)

There are interesting anecdotes about a certain "monstrous figure" who recently came to light -- namely the late former deputy mayor of Takahama, Fukui Prefecture. Before passing away this spring, he is said to have elite members of Kansai Electric Power Co. (KEPCO) who were afraid of rocking the boat wrapped around his finger.

It has recently emerged that the former deputy mayor provided hundreds of millions of yen in gifts to KEPCO executives. He had also received a similarly huge amount in commission fees from a construction firm that was involved in building nuclear power facilities for the power company, which operates the Takahama nuclear plant in the town on the Sea of Japan coast.

I think the historic significance of the commotion surrounding the nuclear plant is that it will make it harder to restart idled nuclear reactors around Japan, and power stations will not be able to operate.

Reports exposing the "alchemical exploits" of the former deputy mayor, who played a central role in bringing a nuclear power plant to the town, had previously appeared in two publications: "Genpatsu no Aru Fukei" (A certain nuclear power plant scene), by Tetsuo Shibano, published by Miraisha in 1983; and "Daremo Kakenakatta Wakasawan" (The Wakasa Bay no one could write about), by Yoshinari Ichinomiya, carried in Bessatsu Takarajima magazine in November 2011.

Before he assumed his position, the former deputy mayor served as secretary-general of the Takahama branch of the Buraku Liberation League between 1969, when he was hired by the town, and 1972, according to a local commemorative publication. This group fights against discrimination of the descendants of outcast groups from Japan's feudal era, and it is outlined in the aforementioned works that he led the league branch's fight against discrimination. Drawing on these activities, he ruled town politics powerfully.

The reports don't mention any surreptitious flow of nuclear power plant-related money back to KEPCO, but they quote town assembly members and other sources at the time as saying that the former deputy mayor used the anti-discrimination movement to stop people from resisting him, and that he received backdoor money from the power company.

For the former deputy mayor, his wheeling and dealing with KEPCO officials was no doubt like child's play. That being said, KEPCO also used the former deputy mayor to recommend a site to host a nuclear power plant, so the utility wasn't entirely a victim.

The circulation of nuclear power plant-related money was uncovered in a tax investigation into a subcontracting firm. KEPCO completed an internal investigation in September last year, but didn't report its findings to the executive board. The only punishments that were quietly meted out were 20% cuts in the remuneration of the chairman, president and deputy president, for two months at maximum.

The monthly salaries of the chairman and president have not been publicly released, but according to a KEPCO securities report, the remuneration of 13 executives last fiscal year totaled 542 million yen (about $5.07 million). Dividing this evenly means each executive was earning 3.47 million yen (close to $32,500) a month on average. In this case, even if they returned 20% of their compensation, they would still be getting 2.78 million yen (about $26,000) a month.

The problem was exposed last month in a report by Kyodo News. It is surprising that not one KEPCO executive resigned over the matter. Not only that, KEPCO Chairman Makoto Yagi still serves as a vice chairman of the Kansai Economic Federation, while President Shigeki Iwane remains in his position as chairman of The Federation of Electric Power Companies.

If I may venture to say, I think they may have learned something from the Fukushima nuclear disaster of March 11, 2011. That is, if anything happens at the company, there's no need for them to take responsibility, and even if reporters ask whether they will step down, they don't need to shrink back, but just hold on tight and ride out the storm.

* * *

According to the government's Basic Energy Plan released in July 2018, it was estimated that nuclear power would account for 20 to 22% of Japan's total energy output in 2030. At the same time, according to the government's Long-term Energy Supply and Demand Outlook from July 2015, the amount of electricity consumed in 2030 is not expected to differ much from the current level.

Experts say that if 80% of facilities were producing energy, taking maintenance into consideration, then nuclear power plants would have to be producing 30 million to 33.5 million kilowatts of electricity in 2030 to meet the government's energy mix target.

However, the 15 nuclear reactors in Japan that have been cleared to operate under new safety standards implemented in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster have a total output of just 15.42 million kilowatts. Even when factoring in 10 other reactors that are currently undergoing screening, the total output reaches only 24.99 million kilowatts.

So this is a shaky target under ordinary circumstances, and now revelations about the flow of nuclear power plant related money has brought trust in electric power companies crashing down.

To resume operations of a nuclear power plant, reactors have to meet the new safety standards, and local authorities have to agree to it, but who is going to believe power companies now?

In this age, nuclear power plants are no longer viable in Japan, and the Takahama nuclear plant problem has firmly set the flow in that direction.

(By Takao Yamada, Special Senior Writer)

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