TOKYO — When Taro Kono was growing up as the son of a major Japanese political party leader, he had what he calls a “fever for the atom.” Like many of his countrymen, he regarded nuclear power plants as his country’s ticket to postwar prosperity, a modern, economical way to meet huge energy needs on an island with few natural resources.
Over the next five decades, pro-nuclear sentiment led Japan to build the world’s third largest fleet of nuclear reactors. Its officials spent more than two decades and $22 billion building a factory to create plutonium-based nuclear reactor fuel, the largest ever to be subject to international monitoring. The facility is slated for completion in October at Rokkasho on Japan’s northeast coast, kicking off a new phase in the country’s long-term plan to increase energy independence.
By the time Kono was elected to the parliament, known as the Diet, at the age of 33 in 1996, however, he had become a skeptic about the Rokkasho plant. After interrogating scientists and meeting with critics, he concluded that a vast array of new reactors fueled by its plutonium faced huge technical challenges, posed a major proliferation risk, and probably would not reap the financial benefits claimed by its backers. He told the American ambassador at an embassy dinner in 2008 that its high costs were improperly kept hidden from the public.
But Kono’s campaign in Japan against the plant has now been systematically squashed, in what he and his allies depict as a telling illustration of the powerful political forces — cronyism, influence-buying, and a stifling of dissenting voices — that have kept the nuclear industry and its backers in the utilities here going strong.
By all accounts, the Japanese nuclear industry’s sway and its governmental support remain high, even in the face of technical glitches, huge cost overruns, and accidents like the meltdowns of three reactors at Fukushima three years ago this week — which led to the abrupt closure of all its remaining reactors.
The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who leads Kono’s party, announced in February its support for restarting some reactors and possibly building new ones, designed specifically to burn plutonium-based fuel.
Abe did so with apparent confidence that he has the enduring support — if not of the public — of the so-called “nuclear power village,” a tightly-woven network of regulators, utility industry executives, engineers, labor leaders and local politicians who have become dependent on nuclear power for jobs, income, and prestige.
Kono, a fluent English-speaker who received his undergraduate degree from Georgetown University, said in an interview that he has been talking about nuclear power “for the last 16 to 17 years,” but “no one really paid attention, right?”
Kono was unable to defeat the plutonium fuel program, he said, because its powerful constituency includes not only members of the ruling party, but bureaucrats, media leaders, bankers and academics. They were, he wrote in a 2011 book, “all scrambling for a place at the table” where nuclear-related funds are distributed. The louder he complained, the more these elites turned their backs on him. Just 60 legislators out of 722 in the parliament’s lower and upper chambers have joined the anti-nuclear caucus he helped organize.
Industry officials contend that Rokkasho’s completion makes sound fiscal sense. Yoshihiko Kawai, president of Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd., the consortium of 85 utilities and other companies that owns the plant, has argued that making new plutonium-based fuels from old reactor fuel — according to the Rokkasho plan — was thrifty, not wasteful. “By directly disposing of spent fuels, we would be just throwing this energy resource away,” he told Plutonium Magazine in 2012.
The publication is produced by a Japanese nonprofit group, the Council for a Nuclear Fuel Cycle, which has seven current or former lawmakers on its board and is dedicated to promoting the “peaceful uses of plutonium,” a material initially created for use in nuclear weapons.
Its director Satoshi Morimoto, who was briefly the country’s defense minister in 2012, attracted attention when he asserted that year that the country’s commercial nuclear power reactors have “very great defensive deterrent functions” — an apparent allusion to the fact that the plants Japan has built to make reactor fuel could be used to make fuel for nuclear arms, if Japan ever decided to do so.