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Politics

Japan tilts toward nuclear energy with METI back in driver's seat

Ex-economy ministry officials pervade top ranks of Kishida administration

Officials with strong ties to METI occupy key government and party posts under Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. (Photo by Nozomu Ogawa)

TOKYO -- Japan's energy policy is expected to turn more nuclear power friendly under new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, with officials with deep ties to the pro-nuclear Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry taking up top party and government posts. 

Those appointments will bring METI back to the core of policymaking after it was sidelined under previous Prime Minster Yoshihide Suga, who pushed measures opposed by the ministry. This time, its sway may extend as far as foreign policy as the new government focuses on economic security, for which Kishida has created a new cabinet post.

The nuclear issue is particularly pressing. The basic energy policy set to be approved by the new cabinet this month includes nuclear in the future electricity mix but makes no mention of building, expanding or updating power plants. Japan's existing facilities are all set to reach the end of their 60-year life span by 2060.

Akira Amari, who has been appointed secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, is expected to advocate for a greater role for nuclear energy, which Amari has called "a must" for pivoting away from fossil fuels.

Amari has deep experience in economic policy. He served as industry minister during Shinzo Abe's first stint as prime minister in the mid-2000s, and led Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations and developed economic growth strategies during Abe's second administration.

 Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, with LDP Secretary-General Akira Amari, who says nuclear energy is crucial to Japan's path to decarbonization. (Photo by Uichiro Kasai)

As Kishida seeks to fix the over-centralization of policymaking in the Prime Minister's Office -- under predecessors Shinzo Abe and Yoshihide Suga -- the party is expected to have more say. METI bureaucrats already visit Amari daily to lobby for the measures they seek, as does national security adviser Takeo Akiba. 

New LDP policy chief Sanae Takaichi has also spent time in METI, as senior vice economy minister and state secretary for international trade and industry. During her run for party president, Takaichi argued that Japan needs to replace nuclear power facilities with new updated ones.

Takashi Shimada, a former vice economy minister, was tapped as Kishida's chief executive secretary in charge of political affairs, and the group of eight secretaries includes one other former ministry bureaucrat. Takaya Imai, a close confidant to Abe, was reappointed as a special adviser to the cabinet on energy policy.

The business community welcomes a pro-nuclear tilt. The Japan-U.S. Business Council issued a statement Thursday calling for recognition of the importance of nuclear power as a core low-carbon energy source, and urging both Tokyo and Washington not to limit their options.

The group argued that until clean energy sources such as renewables and hydrogen are in widespread use, alternatives such as nuclear power and liquefied natural gas will still have an important role to play.

"It is the shared understanding of the Japanese and American business communities that development of compact reactors is a promising possibility in terms of safety and diversification," Chairman Nobuyuki Hirano, a former CEO of Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, told reporters.

The economy ministry is also set to have sway in Kishida's new committee on "implementing a new capitalism," whose remit spans a wide range of policy areas including the tax system and the social safety net. Daishiro Yamagiwa, a former vice economy minister, will oversee the body as economic and fiscal policy minister.

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