BY NAOYUKI FUKUDA STAFF WRITER
Tadashi Maeda (The Asahi Shimbun)
Tadashi Maeda, an adviser to Prime Minister Naoto Kan, has proposed the nationalization of all nuclear power plants in Japan as a means to secure the long-term viability of atomic energy.
Maeda, chief of the Corporate Planning Department of the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, said during a recent interview with The Asahi Shimbun that the risk of a disastrous nuclear accident resulting in a tremendous amount of monetary compensation argues for the nationalization of nuclear power generation.
The government may discuss his proposal as part of the debate on the issue of compensation for victims of the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co.
If a state-run operator of nuclear power plants takes over the responsibility for the compensation for the accident caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake in March, TEPCO may be able to avoid raising electricity rates.
Some lawmakers in both ruling and opposition camps are calling strongly for deeper government involvement in the compensation problem.
Maeda is also an adviser to the government-appointed committee to examine and evaluate TEPCO's assets to assess the utility's ability to pay compensation. Serving as the coordinator for the committee's work is Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku, a heavyweight in the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and a close friend of Maeda.
These facts give political weight to Maeda's nationalization proposal, even though it is his idea.
Excerpts from the interview follow:
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Question: Why should nuclear power plants be nationalized?
Answer: Atomic energy should be in the hands of a state-run operator of nuclear power plants. It is important for the government to assume full responsibility for (their safe operation). The state-run company would acquire the nuclear power operations from utilities and sell electricity to TEPCO and other electric power suppliers as a wholesaler. The profits from the power sales would be used to pay compensation for the nuclear disaster. This way, the financial burden imposed on the public through higher electricity bills and other forms would be minimized. This system would also contribute to ensuring a stable power supply.
Q: Are you saying both sufficient compensation and a stable power supply are difficult under the current system?
A: Currently, the cost of nuclear power generation is five to six yen per kilowatt-hour. Nuclear power plants have traditionally been touted as good assets that offer a cost efficient way of producing electricity. But the Fukushima nuclear disaster has made it clear that a serious accident could cost the operator of the plant an astronomical amount of money due to its obligations related to compensation payments and responses to the accident. This risk argues against leaving private-sector companies to operate nuclear power plants. A utility under such a heavy burden of compensation cannot make necessary investments for the development of renewable energy and the power grid.
Q: The Fukushima disaster has made it difficult for utilities to resume the operation of the reactors that are undergoing regular safety checks. Would the situation be different for a state-run operator?
A: If reactors cannot be restarted after regular safety checks, all the reactors in Japan would be out of service in the first half of next year. That would cause a serious nationwide power shortage and deliver a heavy blow to the economy. If a state-run operator takes charge of nuclear power plants, the central government, along with the local governments concerned, would be responsible for the decisions as to whether reactors should be put back to work. There is currently a lot of anxiety among the public (about nuclear power facilities) because the central government is not committed clearly to their safety.
Q: If a state-run nuclear power company plays the central role in the compensation for the nuclear disaster, TEPCO would be allowed to avoid paying for the damage. Wouldn't that obscure the issue of responsibility for the accident?
A: TEPCO would not be absolved from its responsibility. The company would have no choice but to buy electricity from the state-run operator of nuclear power plants because failing to do so would force it to raise electricity charges. TEPCO's responsibility could be made clear by requiring it to carry out restructuring and management reform as conditions for its purchase of electricity from the public entity.
Q: Wouldn't there be any problem with the government's regulation of state-run nuclear power plants?
A: Not if the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency is made fully independent of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry so that the agency can play the role as an effective watchdog.
Q: Does your proposal have a good chance of being adopted?
A: I think the committee tasked with examining TEPCO's management and financial position should discuss it. As an adviser for the committee, I made the proposal to provoke debate.
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After graduating from the University of Tokyo with a law degree, Tadashi Maeda joined the Export-Import Bank of Japan (now the Japan Bank for International Cooperation) in 1982. After serving several posts, including chief of the department in charge of financing for resources development projects, he is now head of the bank's Corporate Planning Department. Maeda, 53, has also been serving as special adviser to the Cabinet since June 2010.