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After the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant meltdowns during Japan’s 2011 triple disasters, a number of countries around the world — including Germany, Belgium, and Italy have moved away from that power source. But in Japan, the nation’s response was more ambiguous. In a new study based on field research, interviews with relevant actors, and dataset analysis, Timothy Fraser, Ph.D. candidate at Northeastern University, and Daniel Aldrich, Director of the Security and Resilience Studies Program and Professor of Political Science at Northeastern University, find that the Japanese government has tried to revive its commercial nuclear energy while setting up structures to promote renewable energy from sources such as solar and wind.

Since the Fukushima disaster in March 2011, Japan’s energy policy has stayed remarkably true to its course pre-2011 due to the influence of powerful actors in that nation’s nuclear village, including regional power utilities, local officials receiving subsidies for the state for hosting nuclear power plants, and a variety of pro-nuclear institutions, scientists at universities, and energy focused think tanks. The government continues to try to alter preferences in civil society and local government bodies and suppress resistance to its nuclear energy plans. At the same time, local institutions — especially courts, towns, and prefectures — have taken an active role in  energy policy, stalling the restart of nuclear reactors and promoting renewable energy.

Courts and prefectural governors became empowered to challenge national nuclear power policy by issuing court injunctions or revoking permission for nuclear reactor restarts. For governors, these new powers resided in a legal gray zone and were thoroughly rebuked by utilities. For courts, these powers were real but fleeting, as the Japanese state demoted contrarian judges to lower positions elsewhere. The nuclear regulator was the only truly empowered arbiter of restarts, since local officials consistently approved restarts due to their financial dependence on nuclear power subsidies.

Towns gained the opportunity to attract investment of thousands of new renewable power firms. However, they hold little bargaining power to improve environmental conditions or social impacts of the new solar and wind farms they host, since companies have ample other towns to choose from. In contrast, prefectures have played key roles in energy policy, providing information for towns, small firms, and large firms alike to help site renewables. Prefectures especially help encourage business for local engineering and operations & maintenance firms.

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