* Public safety concerns, election, pushing govt toward
* Big businesses oppose exit from nuclear power
* Change in energy mix strategy could be growth opportunity
By Linda Sieg
TOKYO, Aug 29 Japan's government, wary of public
opinion ahead of an election, is leaning toward setting a target
to eliminate atomic power by 2030 - a major policy shift for an
economy that had planned to boost the role of nuclear energy
before the Fukushima crisis.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is expected to call a snap
election within months and with his Democratic Party's (DPJ)
ratings sagging, pressure is mounting to respond to a growing
grass-roots anti-nuclear movement and surveys showing that most
voters want to abandon atomic energy eventually.
Such a decision would fly in the face of objections from big
business lobbies, which say an aggressive programme to exit
nuclear power will boost electricity rates and force companies
to move production - and jobs - overseas.
"I think the zero by 2030 scenario is becoming mainstream
(in the government)," said DPJ lawmaker Satoshi Arai, a former
minister and a member of a panel thrashing out the party's
stance ahead of the election for parliament's lower house.
"I think it is (because of) the election," he told Reuters
in an interview on Wednesday.
In contrast to polls of ordinary voters, a Reuters survey of
big Japanese firms showed that while one in five backed the zero
option, the rest of respondents supported a continued role for
But some economists say a policy shift would spell
opportunities for growth, both for companies now positioning
themselves to profit from the change and the economy overall.
"A sustained focus on energy technology improvement should
be very positive for certain sectors or producers but also very
positive for users, who need increased incentives to use energy
more efficiently," said Robert Feldman, chief economist at
Morgan Stanley MUFG Securities in Tokyo.
Feldman rejected suggestions that an abrupt policy change
would prompt firms to move overseas "because it takes a static
view of technology. Why would technology stop in its tracks?"
The earthquake and tsunami that crippled the Fukushima power
plant and caused a series of meltdowns prompted cancellation of
a 2010 plan to raise the share of nuclear power in electricity
production to more than 50 percent by 2030 from nearly 30
All 50 of Japan's reactors were halted within months of the
accident, with two since reconnected to the grid. Policymakers
are now considering three options for the future of the sector.
Most experts had expected Noda to opt for a scenario that
would put nuclear power's share at around 15 percent of
electricity production by 2030. But growing anti-nuclear
protests combined with strong support for the zero option at
public hearings and in opinion polls has forced the government
to rethink, experts and politicians said.
"A majority of people are eager to get rid of nuclear power
- that is our conclusion after we discussed a variety of public
opinions submitted to the government this time," Economics
Minister Motohisa Furukawa told reporters on Tuesday.
Besides the zero and 15 percent options, a third scenario
would put nuclear power's share at 20-25 percent by 2030.
The earthquake and tsunami devastated Tokyo Electric Power
Co's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant north of Tokyo and
forced about 160,000 people to flee their homes, many of whom
may never return. The disaster undermined public confidence in
nuclear power, promoted for decades as safe, clean and cheap.
Noda's decision to approve the restart of the two reactors
galvanised the anti-nuclear movement.
But Noda's party is split and the prime minister seems
reluctant to wean Japan from nuclear power too soon. "There are
many people who say different things and no one can say whether
the government will choose zero or 15 percent at this point,"
said a source with knowledge of the debate.
Some experts still expect the government to pick the 15
percent scenario, the logical outcome if reactors are shut after
40 years as required "in principle" by law, and no new reactors
are built. It could, however, add that Japan will aim to exit
atomic energy longer term, a stance the main opposition Liberal
Democratic Party may also adopt in its own campaign platform.
"While the Noda Administration ... (is) openly talking about
a zero nuclear policy, we believe this is simply not doable. A
15 percent nuclear policy will likely be adopted after all the
protests and arguments," said a report by energy consultants
FACTS Global Energy.
Demand for liquefied natural gas in Japan, the world's
biggest consumer of the fuel, will rise further to run power
stations as renewable sources such as solar and
wind power would not fill the gap fast enough, the report said.
Arai, who favours the 15 percent solution, echoed the
concerns. "If we move faster, technological and system
development and huge changes in society will be needed," he
said. "I don't think that is possible in 15-20 years."
(Additional reporting by Kentaro Hamada and Aaron Sheldrick in
Tokyo; Editing by Ron Popeski)