A leading contender to replace Naoto Kan as Japan’s prime minister has called for the country to phase out nuclear power over the next two decades.
Seiji Maehara, one of the most popular figures in the ruling Democratic party, told the Financial Times in an interview that construction of new nuclear reactors should “basically be stopped” following the crisis at the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi atomic plant.
Mr Maehara’s comments — seen as a strong candidate to succeed Mr Kan — will fuel expectations that the nuclear crisis will prompt sweeping changes in Japan’s energy policy.
The Mainichi newspaper reported that Yoshito Sengoku, chief cabinet secretary, was backing a confidential plan to separate the electricity generation and distribution arms of Tokyo Electric Power, Fukushima’s operator, and nationalise its nuclear assets.
The nuclear crisis that erupted after Japan was hit by a magnitude 9 earthquake and tsunami in March has fuelled anti-nuclear sentiment around the world. The German parliament on Thursday voted to close all of the country’s nuclear power plants by 2022.
A Japanese retreat from atomic power would have far-reaching implications for domestic utilities and companies such as Toshiba, Hitachi and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which are seeking to sell nuclear technology overseas.
“There is a need for a revolutionary shift in how electricity is generated and used,” said Mr Maehara, who served as transport minister and as foreign minister before stepping down from the cabinet in March over a minor funding scandal.
While Mr Kan has pledged to make renewable energy and conservation pillars of national energy policy alongside fossil fuels and nuclear power, he has been vague about the prospects for new reactors planned or under construction.
Opinion polls suggest a majority of voters support a gradual reduction in the use of atomic energy. Mr Maehara said Japan should aim to phase out nuclear power completely.
“That is what is going to happen and?...?what should happen, but given that we depend on nuclear power for 30 per cent of electricity generation, we can’t get rid of it right away,” he said.
“While increasing the safety of nuclear power, we need to use preferential policies to reduce our dependence on it over 10 or 20 years.”
Mr Maehara’s relative popularity and status as a former leader of the DPJ mean his call for a nuclear phase-out could put the issue at the centre of any party election to replace Mr Kan.
The DPJ and the former ruling Liberal Democratic party, the biggest opposition group, remain officially pro-nuclear despite the Fukushima Daiichi crisis, but both parties have long contained members who are against the use of atomic energy on safety or environmental grounds.
Speculation has been growing in recent weeks that the scale of the crisis will make nuclear policy a key battleground.
Mr Maehara's status as a possible successor to Mr Kan has been boosted by recent opinion polls. One survey by the Nikkei Shimbun suggested one-fifth of voters thought him the most suitable person to become DPJ leader and thus premier.
However, Mr Maehara said he was being "extremely cautious" about the possibility of replacing Mr Kan given his recent resignation over revelations that he received Y250,000 ($3,100) in political donations from a long-time Korean resident.
Japanese politicians are barred from taking funds from foreigners. Mr Maehara has said he was unaware of the donations, and the scandal is seen by analysts as a relatively minor affair.
Mr Maehara told the FT he had made an "accounting mistake". He said staying in office might have complicated passage of important legislation, including a bill allowing continued financial support for US military bases in Japan.
The former transport minister also took aim at a troubled “fast-breeder" atomic power station, which he said was “very expensive". The Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor in western Fukui Prefecture, was shut down in 1995 following a coolant leak.
The 280MW plant, which burns plutonium refined from the spent fuel of conventional reactors, was restarted last year but soon suffered a new setback when a 3.3 tonne piece of equipment fell into its reactor, taking months to remove.
"In my opinion we should abandon it," Mr Maehara said.