Japan’s Nuclear Industry Stays Influential, Despite Accidents And big Costs
By Douglas Birch, R. Jeffrey Smith and Jake Adelstein, Heart for Public Integrity
TOKYO — When Taro Kono was growing up because the son of a major Japanese political celebration chief, 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 trendy, economical way to fulfill enormous vitality wants on an island with few pure sources.
Over the subsequent five decades, professional-nuclear sentiment led Japan to construct the world’s third largest fleet of nuclear reactors. Its officials spent more than two decades and $22 billion constructing a factory to create plutonium-primarily 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 brand new part within the country’s lengthy-time period plan to extend energy independence.
By the time Kono was elected to the parliament, known as the Food plan, on the age of 33 in 1996, nevertheless, he had turn into a skeptic in regards to the Rokkasho plant. After interrogating scientists and meeting with critics, he concluded that an unlimited array of recent reactors fueled by its plutonium faced enormous technical challenges, posed a serious proliferation danger, and possibly wouldn’t reap the financial benefits claimed by its backers. He instructed the American ambassador at an embassy dinner in 2008 that its excessive prices have been improperly kept hidden from the general public.
However Kono’s campaign in Japan in opposition to the plant has now been systematically squashed, in what he and his allies depict as a telling illustration of the highly effective political forces — cronyism, affect-shopping for, and a stifling of dissenting voices — which have stored the nuclear trade and its backers within the utilities here going sturdy.
By all accounts, the Japanese nuclear industry’s sway and its governmental assist stay excessive, even within the face of technical glitches, enormous value overruns, and accidents just like the meltdowns of three reactors at Fukushima three years in the past this week — which led to the abrupt closure of all its remaining reactors.
The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who leads Kono’s get together, announced in February its help for restarting some reactors and possibly building new ones, designed specifically to burn plutonium-based mostly fuel.
Abe did so with obvious confidence that he has the enduring support — if not of the public — of the so-called “nuclear power village,” a tightly-woven community of regulators, utility business executives, engineers, labor leaders and local politicians who have turn out to be dependent on nuclear power for jobs, income, and prestige.
Kono, a fluent English-speaker who acquired his undergraduate diploma from Georgetown College, said in an interview that he has been talking about nuclear power “for the final sixteen to 17 years,” however “no one really paid attention, proper ”
Kono was unable to defeat the plutonium gas program, he stated, as a result of its powerful constituency contains not solely members of the ruling party, however bureaucrats, media leaders, bankers and teachers. They had been, he wrote in a 2011 e-book, “all scrambling for a place at the table” where nuclear-associated funds are distributed. The louder he complained, the extra these elites turned their backs on him. Simply 60 legislators out of 722 within the parliament’s decrease and higher chambers have joined the anti-nuclear caucus he helped organize.
Trade officials contend that Rokkasho’s completion makes sound fiscal sense. Yoshihiko Kawai, president of Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. the consortium of 85 utilities and different companies that owns the plant, has argued that making new plutonium-primarily based fuels from previous reactor gasoline — based on the Rokkasho plan — was thrifty, not wasteful. “By immediately disposing of spent fuels, we would be simply throwing this power useful 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 devoted to selling the “peaceful makes use of of plutonium,” a cloth initially created to be used in nuclear weapons.
Its director Satoshi Morimoto, who was briefly the country’s defense minister in 2012, attracted consideration when he asserted that 12 months that the country’s industrial nuclear energy reactors have “very great defensive deterrent functions” — an obvious allusion to the truth that the plants Japan has built to make reactor gas could be used to make gasoline for nuclear arms, if Japan ever determined to take action.
National Safety investigations in your inbox: Join the middle for Public Integrity’s Watchdog e mail.
A broadside over dinner
On a warm, cloudless fall evening in 2008, Kono brought his sturdy views concerning the corrupting affect of the “nuclear village” to a dinner on the walled residence of U.S. ambassador to Japan Thomas Schieffer, a longtime good friend and former enterprise accomplice of President George W. Bush.
Schieffer was desperate to take the measure of a rising politician who opposed Bush’s plan for wider use of plutonium-based mostly nuclear fuels across the globe, beneath a program often called International Nuclear Power Partnership that envisioned a large position for the Rokkasho plant.
Kono was not only a scrappy and bold younger politician: He’s the heir to a fourth-generation political dynasty — the son of the longest-serving speaker legacy oil and gas of the parliament’s lower house in postwar history, an influential figure who is much less outspoken but additionally has an unbiased streak. Taro Kono himself, who generally campaigns in colorful suspenders, is standard inside Kanagawa prefecture, part of the higher Tokyo area, where the residents gave him 186,770 votes in 2005. Kono says that was the second-highest total in Japan’s electoral history.
However his anti-nuclear efforts had gotten little traction elsewhere in Japan. And so, while seated in the small dining room of the residence the place Douglas MacArthur met Emperor Hirohito in 1945, Kono attempted to sketch out the institutional explanation why Japan’s bureaucrats and its utilities remained wedded to what he considered an outdated nuclear coverage. A confidential embassy abstract of the unusual conversation, stuffed with criticism by Kono of his country’s insurance policies, was published by Wikileaks in 2011.
Kono said junior officials in the government, who noticed plutonium fuels as a expensive technological dead finish, were trapped by insurance policies they had inherited from extra senior lawmakers whom Japanese tradition did not permit them to problem. He complained that underneath Japanese parliamentary customs, he could not hire or fire committee employees but usually had to depend on bureaucrats loaned from authorities companies, all with a vested curiosity in selling nuclear energy. Any questions he requested were rapidly passed again to those agencies.
Kono mentioned it can be cheaper for Japan to “buy a uranium mountain in Australia” than to build breeder reactors and gasoline them with plutonium produced at Rokkasho. He additional told his hosts that the trade dominated the nationwide conversation over power not only through its heavy promoting however by squelching any public criticism. Electric companies, he stated without providing particulars, had pressured a tv station to brief-circuit an interview with him by threatening to withdraw their advertising.
At the top of the night, Kono recalls, Schieffer hold him, “What you’re saying is completely completely different from what all the others say.” In his recent interview with the legacy oil and gas middle for Public Integrity, Kono mentioned Schieffer’s appraisal didn’t shock him. Most of Kono’s contemporaries have long regarded him as an eccentric or someone oddly allied with the tiny, vehemently anti-nuclear, Communist Occasion right here.
A desire for the atom
Japan’s appetite for nuclear energy seems quixotic for a nation devastated by its dark underside: the plutonium- and uranium-fueled weapons developed by American scientists. But one lesson its leaders took from the explosions over Nagasaki and Hiroshima was that they should master the expertise that defeated them.
“I saw the mushroom cloud from my naval operation base in Takamatsu,” a younger sailor named Yasuhiro Nakasone recalled in his autobiography. Nakasone, who would grow to be Japan’s high science official after which its prime minister from 1982 to 1987, stated he concluded that if Japan didn’t use the atom for peaceful functions, it could “forever be a fourth-rate nation.”
That impulse was nurtured, carefully and secretly, by Washington. A 1954 cable to the director of the CIA — declassified solely eight years in the past — called for an “atomic peace mission” to Japan by U.S. nuclear scientists and reactor-company officials to overcome prevailing anti-nuclear sentiment and help “revive the hopes of the deflation-oppressed Japanese in reconstructing their financial system.”
To carry out what the cable described as “an enlightenment propaganda program,” the company specifically enlisted the help of Matsutaro Shoriki, a former head of the infamous Tokyo police commission in the 1920s who had gone on to grow to be a outstanding writer and broadcaster. The Yomiuri Shimbun, his newspaper, enthusiastically promoted nuclear energy and Shoriki himself helped discovered Japan’s Atomic Industrial Forum, a tight alliance of corporations and utilities. He died in 1969.
Beginning in 1966, Japan started building about one reactor a year. From the start, nevertheless, Japan planned to make use of uranium-fueled mild-water reactors — the know-how in predominant use around the globe — only until it had created a new energy system based on advanced, breeder reactors, so named because they can both devour and produce plutonium in what in precept might be an limitless cycle, virtually like perpetual-motion machines.
Uranium was initially — and mistakenly — thought to be rare. And breeders, initially predicted to be less costly than typical reactors, have confirmed expensive to construct, tough to operate, and laborious to secure, frightening France, Britain, and the United States to cut back or shut their breeder packages several many years ago.
As a young man, Kono learn in his “manga” comic books that breeder reactors had been supreme for Japan, as a result of they might present the country with power for hundreds of years “without having to burn oil,” he wrote in his current ebook on the Fukushima catastrophe. The most important Japanese utilities all supported this claim, and helped spread that phrase by promoting expenditures that totaled $27.6 billion over the previous four a long time, in response to a 2013 investigation by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, the Center’s associate on this examination of Rokkasho.
Development of the Rokkasho plant started in 1993 and was initially purported to be finished by 1997, but technical setbacks and construction problems compelled a delay of practically two many years. Paul Dickman, a senior coverage fellow at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, the center of U.S. breeder reactor analysis, said Rokkasho is “a nice facility.” But he also stated it was a “construction challenge that’s gone out of control,” because Japan selected to modify an current French design for such plants, rather than simply copying it.
Extra stories within the Nuclear Waste investigation from the center for Public Integrity
A dissenting view is suppressed
Throughout Rokkasho’s building, the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Business has been a bastion of pro-nuclear boosterism. But 4 officials in its economic and industrial policy bureau dared to problem orthodoxy in 2004, after they prepared a 26-web page Powerpoint entitled “The Unstoppable Nuclear Gas Cycle” that referred to as the deliberate plutonium-based mostly nuclear program outdated and its promoters corrupt.
The presentation, obtained by the center for Public Integrity, said nuclear policymaking was managed by “those involved with and involved within the nuclear energy trade.” It famous that four of the Atomic Energy Commission’s 5 members had a professional or monetary stake in the trade, presaging a widespread criticism of the organization in the aftermath of the Fukushima catastrophe.
The presentation additionally predicted that building, operating, and decommissioning the Rokkasho plant would price virtually $190 billion, and warned that the practicality of constructing particular reactors to burn the gas it would make “has yet to be confirmed.” In a rush to embrace plutonium recycling, it said, Japan’s political leaders had “ignored the lack of conclusive research” and did not acknowledge technical criticisms.
Though the authors urged that their report be published to encourage a public debate, it was as an alternative suppressed, and so they have been all swiftly purged from the policy bureau, in accordance with a supply with direct information about METI’s response. The Mainichi Shimbun newspaper finally disclosed the report’s existence in 2012.
The AEC in the meantime disregarded the coverage bureau’s recommendation, and authorized preliminary testing of the Rokkasho plant in 2006, which contaminated its pipes and tools with highly radioactive dust, solvents, and different wastes. That ended any hopes of merely mothballing the plant. Any future decommissioning will take many years and price $sixteen billion, based on AEC estimates.
Members of the Liberal Democratic Get together, which has dominated Japan since 1955 apart from a year within the 1990s and for a 3-12 months period ending in 2012, have been rewarded for their pro-nuclear stance with marketing campaign donations from the ten giant electrical utilities that control around 96 % of the nation’s energy provide.
The most important of these, the Tokyo Electric Power Company or Tepco, formally ended its direct corporate donations in 1974. However it systematically encouraged “voluntary” donations by company executives and managers to a fund-raising entity created by the ruling occasion, according to a 2011 investigation by Asahi. A minimum of 448 Tepco executives donated roughly $777,000 in whole to the entity between 1995 and 2009, in accordance with documents obtained by Asahi and shared with the middle.
Roughly 60 percent of Tepco’s executives participated, a price similar to that at different utilities. Collectively, they funded $2.5 million of the party’s bills, based mostly on today’s alternate rates. A Tepco spokesman told Asahi that the donations have been “based on the judgment of the person and the corporate shouldn’t be concerned. We do not encourage such donations.”
However Tepco executives, in interviews with Asahi reporters, said the corporate repeatedly stipulated how a lot they need to donate — roughly $3,900 for high executives, $three,300 for government vice presidents, and $1,seven hundred for managing administrators, the newspaper mentioned. Kono alleged contributions akin to these had bought the loyalty of the ruling celebration and officials in the localities that hosted nuclear energy plants.
Tepco’s influence has also been enhanced by its enthusiastic participation in revolving door-employment practices much like these involving bureaucrats and firms in Washington, D.C.
A METI report in 2011, prepared on the insistence of nuclear opponents in Japan’s tiny Communist Social gathering, said for instance that between 1960 and 2011, Tepco hired 68 high-stage authorities officials. From 1980 to late 2011, the report stated, 4 former top-degree bureaucrats from METI’s own Agency for Natural Resources and Energy turned vice presidents at different electric utilities. The apply is understood here by the amusing time period, amakudari, for appointees who “descended from heaven.”
Tepco officials also usually transfer into key regulatory positions, part of a migration often called ama-agari, or “ascent to heaven” that has involved dozens of top utility officials. More than a hundred such utility executives between 2001 and 2011 were in a position to maintain drawing an business paycheck whereas additionally working part-time for the federal government, a follow that’s legal right here, according to a former member of the Japanese Diet Lower House Economic system and Trade Committee, who spoke on background. An official working within the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s research division, in an interview, stated on situation of anonymity that the ama-agari system is “like having cops and thieves working in the identical police station.”
Perhaps the most significant occasion of ama-agari was the Liberal Democratic Party’s appointment in 1998 of Tokio Kano, a longtime Tepco executive, as chairman of the parliamentary committee that oversees METI and because the parliamentary secretary of science and technology. Both are posts crucial to the nuclear energy trade, and Kano used them to advance laws enabling plutonium-based mostly fuel to be burned in some normal reactors — not simply breeders. He also pushed by way of a legislation requiring that every one spent nuclear gasoline be despatched to Rokkasho or comparable Japanese plants.
Taro Kono, the industry critic, charged that Kano “acted like the secretary basic of whatever committee had something to do with energy and electricity.” Kono says that when he himself raised objections to nuclear policies during committee conferences, Kano would say “well, there’s a wierd voice in this room, however we type of got unanimous consent” after which proceed.
When Kano retired from the parliament in 2011, he returned to Tepco — the place he had saved an workplace all through his work writing laws — as a special adviser.
Kano declined the Center’s request for an interview. But he informed Asahi in 2011 he remains satisfied that nuclear energy is wise. “Reactors have been constructed because local residents strongly desired them, and it’s a reality they generated employment and revenue,” he mentioned. “Some researchers say that low-dose radiation is nice in your health. It’s a persuasive argument.”
Kano individually advised The new York Occasions that yr it was “disgusting” that his critics thought-about him a Tepco “errand boy” merely because he had the enterprise community’s help.
Funds and wastes cement Rokkasho’s function
The Aomori area the place the Rokkasho plant is positioned, with a windswept coastline and harsh local weather, ranks close to the bottom of the nation’s forty seven prefectures, or statelets, in per capita income. “You can’t grow a lot,” says Taro Kono, the anti-nuclear activist lawmaker, who mentioned he understands the plant’s native enchantment. “It’s a troublesome place to reside.”
Within the 1980s, the central authorities tried and did not stimulate Aomori’s economic system with sugar beet farming and a tank farm for petroleum reserves, each of which faltered. So the nuclear plant’s development, which started in 1993, turned out to be a vital supply of jobs, taxes, and even tourism — contributing round 88 percent of the village’s whole tax income in 2012, according to Aomori Prefecture officials. A Japanese examine last year said it had boosted per capita revenue levels by 62 %.
Moreover, to easy the best way for the plant, the central authorities pays the village — which has a population of simply 12,000 — $25.9 million in grants yearly below a particular nuclear subsidy program created in Tokyo to promote the siting of nuclear energy amenities everywhere in the nation. The grants have amounted to greater than $2,300 annually for each man lady and child in the village, based on prefecture officials. The village’s Chamber of Commerce has reported that roughly 70 p.c of the companies there are actually involved with or dependent upon the nuclear trade.
Of course, the draw back of the program for native residents is that Rokkasho has since turn out to be a storage site for three thousand tons of highly-radioactive spent fuel from commercial energy plants, ready to be processed into new plutonium. To win the right to do this, Japan’s electric energy monopolies sixteen years ago pledged that the huge bulk of that spent gas could be recycled as fuel — or it can be despatched again.
But doing so would swamp spent-gasoline pools at reactor sites which can be already near capability, Japanese officials say, and could doom the Abe government’s plans to reopen many of Japan’s 50 surviving reactors.
Kono says re-negotiating this settlement — which many politicians regard as sacrosanct — is the single greatest challenge to unraveling the plans of the “nuclear village.”
A latent nuclear arsenal
After the Fukushima catastrophe, some of Kono’s political adversaries embraced another argument in favor of the country’s reactors and the Rokkasho plant that could appear surprising to some within the West: Operating these facilities sends a useful signal to would-be aggressors that Japan could shortly develop nuclear arms.
“There’s a professional-nuclear power plant argument that we need to keep the nuclear reactor operating in order that we can pretend that we may have a nuclear weapon at some point,” Kono mentioned in the course of the late-night time interview in his house home.
Shigeru Ishiba, a former protection minister who was Kono’s rival for a ruling get together management submit in 2009 and is now its common secretary, induced a stir in October 2011 when he told Sapio, a proper-wing journal, that Japan’s business nuclear reactors “would enable us to provide a nuclear warhead in a brief amount of time.” He added: “It’s a tacit deterrent.”
Japan has a pacifist constitution, and a 47-12 months-old policy of ruling out the production, possession or introduction of nuclear weapons on Japanese soil. It has signed and ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and is a leading advocate of nuclear arms control.
Furthermore, all of Japan’s present plutonium stockpile is beneath International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards, while its uranium — a linchpin of any effort to restart the country’s civilian reactors — is basically imported.
These large challenges must be overcome for Japan to embark on a weapons program, in response to Jacques E.C. Hymans on the College of Southern California and different scholars.
But a potential linkage between Rokkasho’s product and nuclear weapons has hung over this system from the start. Kumao Kaneko, a 76-12 months-previous former director of the Nuclear Energy Division of Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told the middle for Public Integrity that Tokyo pressed the Carter administration in 1977 for permission to start out producing plutonium partly to make sure Japan had a weapons option.
“We concluded, Japan shouldn’t [construct] nuclear armaments, whereas leaving the ability” to take action, mentioned Kaneko, who retired from the ministry in 1982 to grow to be a director of a International Ministry-affiliated suppose tank.
That decision adopted a formal, secret study of choices for building nuclear arms, carried out in 1970 at the behest of Yasuhiro Nakasone, then Japan’s defense minister. After two years of labor, the group concluded “it could be attainable in a legal sense to own small-yield, tactical, purely defensive nuclear weapons with out violating the structure.” Nevertheless it determined that the effort would be expensive, take years, and alienate Japan’s neighbors. The nation decided instead to stay underneath the U.S. nuclear umbrella.
However many prominent Japanese officials still need the capability to supply nuclear arms if they were wanted, in line with Naoto Kan, who held a sequence of top government financial and strategic coverage positions before turning into Japan’s prime minister from 2010 to 2011, representing the Democratic Occasion of Japan — the LDP’s primary rival. He stated the desire for a nuclear weapons capability is a vital source of help for Japan’s plutonium programs.
“Inside Japan, and that isn’t solely within the Democratic Party of Japan, there are entities who want to be able to take care of the flexibility to provide Japan’s own plutonium,” Kan mentioned in an interview with the middle for Public Integrity in his parliamentary office. “They don’t say it in public, but they wish to have the capability to create nuclear weapons in case of a risk.”
It’s a bold assertion, which independent figures — like Hiroaki Kodai, a 63-12 months old physicist at Kyoto University — say Japanese society normally doesn’t tolerate. Kodai, who’s an assistant professor, says his own comparable declarations have “not been good for my career.”
The U.S. has long been concerned about potential growth of a Japanese bomb, since Japan has the scientific abilities, infrastructure and — most necessary — the uncooked explosive material within the form of plutonium, tons of of pounds of weapons-grade uranium, and the know-how to produce more. Washington’s worry is that such an arsenal would set off a regional arms race, complicating Japan’s relations with its neighbors, some of whom would clamor for the same capability.
U.S. policymakers have pursued a two-pronged path to blocking that development: Over the previous four years, they’ve quietly introduced a stream of Japanese diplomats and navy officers into highly restricted U.S. nuclear weapons centers — together with the Strategic Command headquarters in Nebraska, a Minuteman missile base in Montana, and a Trident submarine base exterior Seattle — to remind them of the robustness of the U.S. nuclear deterrent.
The U.S. additionally has gently urged Japan to cap or reduce the dimensions of its plutonium stockpile. Its officials have encouraged Japan to reopen its closed reactors, partially so any newly-created plutonium will be burned at the identical fee it is being produced. They’ve additionally pressed Japan to hand over, via repatriation to the United States, some of its current plutonium stocks before production will get beneath approach.
But the U.S. has not urged Japan to cancel its Rokkasho challenge, a number of current and former senior U.S. and Japanese officials stated. Authorities say one cause Washington has not supplied that advice is that killing it — and all the long run nuclear power plants linked to it — would improve Japan’s dependence on traditional energy supplies and drive up their price on the world market, adversely impacting the U.S. financial system.
“Obviously what is finished in the long run at Rokkasho is a choice for the Japanese folks, the Japanese authorities to make,” Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman said throughout a July 2012 press conference in Tokyo. He added that “to the extent that there can be paths forward for Rokkasho” that could avoid rising Japan’s stockpile of plutonium, “that can be a good thing.”
Poneman coupled this, nevertheless, with a public pitch for letting Japan use nuclear power to cut back carbon emissions, acknowledging that it is a vital tool “for our associates and colleagues in Japan … who’re very fearful about local weather change.”
Jon Wolfstahl, who till two years in the past served as a nonproliferation knowledgeable on the employees of Vice President Joe Biden and the White House National Safety Council, stated many within the administration believed that Japan wouldn’t listen to pleas for canceling Rokkasho, and that insisting on it would only fracture U.S. relations with the nation.
“They don’t need the United States to inform them that Rokkasho is an enormous waste of cash and that there’s no want for them to start out marching down this highway,” Wolfstahl stated. “But I’m unsure there’s much the U.S. may do about it.”
Gary Samore, who directed nuclear proliferation policy at the White Home throughout Obama’s first term, put it extra bluntly: “If the Japanese authorities really decided, ‘yes, we’re going to turn it on,’ then the Obama administration would have to make a decision,” he mentioned.
Both the United States may have to stay “with current coverage, which is not to object,” or it will have to try to persuade Japan to abandon its plutonium manufacturing plan.
Toshihiro Okuyama and Yumi Nakayama, workers writers for the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, contributed reporting for this article. Douglas Birch is a senior writer at the center for Public Integrity. R. Jeffrey Smith is managing editor for national security at the center. Jake Adelstein has worked as an investigative journalist in Tokyo since 1993.