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.
A broadside over dinner
On a warm, cloudless fall evening in 2008, Kono brought his strong views about the corrupting influence of the “nuclear village” to a dinner at the walled residence of U.S. ambassador to Japan Thomas Schieffer, a longtime friend and former business partner of President George W. Bush.
Schieffer was eager to take the measure of a rising politician who opposed Bush’s plan for wider use of plutonium-based nuclear fuels around the globe, under a program known as Global Nuclear Energy Partnership that envisioned a large role for the Rokkasho plant.
Kono was not just a scrappy and ambitious young politician: He is the heir to a fourth-generation political dynasty — the son of the longest-serving speaker of the parliament’s lower house in postwar history, an influential figure who is less outspoken but also has an independent streak. Taro Kono himself, who sometimes campaigns in colorful suspenders, is popular within Kanagawa prefecture, part of the greater 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.
But his anti-nuclear efforts had gotten little traction elsewhere in Japan. And so, while seated in the small dining room of the residence where Douglas MacArthur met Emperor Hirohito in 1945, Kono attempted to sketch out the institutional reasons why Japan’s bureaucrats and its utilities remained wedded to what he considered an outdated nuclear policy. A confidential embassy summary of the unusual conversation, full of criticism by Kono of his country’s policies, was published by Wikileaks in 2011.
Kono said junior officials in the government, who saw plutonium fuels as a costly technological dead end, were trapped by policies they had inherited from more senior lawmakers whom Japanese culture did not permit them to challenge. He complained that under Japanese parliamentary customs, he could not hire or fire committee staff but often had to rely on bureaucrats loaned from government agencies, all with a vested interest in promoting nuclear power. Any questions he asked were quickly passed back to those agencies.
Kono said it would be cheaper for Japan to “buy a uranium mountain in Australia” than to build breeder reactors and fuel them with plutonium produced at Rokkasho. He further told his hosts that the industry dominated the national conversation over power not only through its heavy advertising but by squelching any public criticism. Electric companies, he said without providing details, had forced a television station to short-circuit an interview with him by threatening to withdraw their advertising.
At the end of the evening, Kono recalls, Schieffer hold him, “What you are saying is totally different from what all the others say.” In his recent interview with the Center for Public Integrity, Kono said Schieffer’s appraisal did not surprise him. Most of Kono’s contemporaries have long regarded him as an eccentric or someone oddly allied with the tiny, vehemently anti-nuclear, Communist Party here.