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
It only took some 50
years for Japan to build the third largest fleet of nuclear reactors in the
world. Over the past two decades, it has spent $22 billion building the
Rokkasho Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Facility, which, its private owners say, will be ready in October
2014 to begin creating plutonium-based nuclear reactor fuel -- and will kick off a
new phase in the country's long-term plan to increase energy independence.
In 1996, Kono was
elected to the parliament, known as the Diet. Even then, the 33-year-old
politician was already skeptical of the Rokkasho plant and began to highlight
the possible problems associated with the reprocessing facility: The very
reactors that would ultimately use the fuel faced huge technical challenges,
posed a major proliferation risk, and probably would not reap the financial
benefits claimed by its backers.
But Kono's fight has
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 the 2010 meltdowns
of three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, which led to
the abrupt closure of the country's nuclear reactors.
Shinzo Abe, who leads Kono's party, announced in February 2014 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 of the so-called "nuclear
power village," a tightly-woven network of regulators, utility industry
executives, engineers, labor leaders, local politicians, and the public who
have become dependent on nuclear power for jobs, income, and prestige.
As Kono wrote in his
2011 book, it wasn't just the members of the ruling party, who were serious
about building the reprocessing plant, but also bureaucrats, media leaders,
bankers, and academics. They were "all scrambling for a place at the table,"
where nuclear-related funds were distributed. The louder Kono complained, he
said, 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.
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 reprocessing -- making new
plutonium-based fuels from old reactor fuel -- is thrifty, not wasteful.
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
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." His
words were 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
On a warm, cloudless
fall evening in 2008, Kono attended a dinner at the U.S. ambassador's residence
in Tokyo, and brought along his
strong views about the corrupting influence of the nuclear village. The
ambassador at the time, Thomas Schieffer, was a longtime friend and
former business partner of President George W. Bush.
administration had resurrected a plan for reprocessing -- killed in the United
States by the Carter administration and by Congress -- under a program known as the Global Nuclear Energy
Partnership. Championing the use of plutonium-based nuclear fuels around the
globe, the administration envisioned a large role for the Rokkasho plant.
Schieffer was interested in what Kono, a rising politician, had to say. (Obama
would later mothball this project in 2009.)
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.
fluent English, was educated at Georgetown University, and sometimes campaigns
in colorful suspenders. He is popular among his constituents within Kanagawa
prefecture, part of the greater Tokyo area.
But his anti-nuclear
efforts had gotten little traction outside his community base. And so while seated in the small dining room of the ambassador's residence where U.S.
Army General Douglas MacArthur met Emperor Hirohito in 1945, Kono attempted to
sketch out for Schieffer 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 from government agencies, all with
a vested interest in promoting nuclear power. Any questions he asked were
quickly passed back to those agencies.
Kono told Schieffer
that 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 host that the industry dominated the national
conversation over power not only through its heavy advertising but by
squelching any public criticism. Though he didn't elaborate, he said that
electric companies 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
A desire for the
Japan's appetite for
fission seems quixotic for a nation devastated by its dark underside: the
nuclear weapons developed by American scientists.
But one lesson Japanese
leaders took from the explosions over Nagasaki and Hiroshima was that they
should master the technology that defeated them.
"I saw the mushroom
cloud from my naval operation base in Takamatsu," a young sailor named Yasuhiro
Nakasone recalled in his autobiography. Nakasone, Japan's top science official
and then its prime minister from 1982 to 1987, concluded that if Japan didn't
use the atom for peaceful purposes, it would "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
only eight years ago -- 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 economy."
To carry out what
the cable described as "an enlightenment propaganda program," the agency in
particular enlisted the assistance of Matsutaro Shoriki, a former head of the
notorious Tokyo police commission in the 1920s who had gone on to become a
prominent publisher and broadcaster. The Yomiuri
Shimbun, his newspaper, enthusiastically promoted nuclear power and Shoriki
himself helped found Japan's Atomic Industrial Forum, a tight alliance of
companies and utilities. He died in 1969.
Beginning in 1966,
Japan started building about one reactor a year. From the start, however, Japan
planned to use uranium-fueled light-water reactors -- the technology in
predominant use around the globe -- only until it had created a new energy system based on breeder reactors, so named because they can both consume and produce plutonium.
Uranium was initially
-- and mistakenly -- thought to be rare. And breeders, initially predicted to
be less costly than conventional reactors, have proven expensive to build,
difficult to operate, and hard to secure, provoking France, Britain, and the
United States to cut back or close their breeder programs several decades ago.
This message was
sewn into the very fabric of Japanese society. As a young man, Kono read in his
"manga" comic books that breeder
reactors were ideal for Japan, because they could provide the country with
energy for thousands of years "without having to burn oil," he wrote in his
2011 book on the Fukushima disaster.
The major Japanese
utilities all supported this claim, and helped spread that word through
advertising expenditures that totaled $27.6 billion over the past four decades,
according to a 2013 investigation by the Asahi
Shimbun newspaper, the Center for Public Integrity's partner in this
examination of Rokkasho.
Construction of the
Rokkasho plant began in 1993 and was initially supposed to be finished by 1997,
but technical setbacks and construction problems forced a delay of nearly two
decades. Paul Dickman, a senior policy fellow at Argonne National Laboratory in
Illinois, the center of U.S. breeder reactor research, said Rokkasho is "a great
facility." But he also said it was a "construction project that's gone out of
control," because Japan chose to modify an existing French design for such
plants, rather than simply copying it.
A dissenting view is
Rokkasho's construction, the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry
(METI) has been a bastion of pro-nuclear boosterism. But four officials in its
economic and industrial policy bureau dared to challenge orthodoxy in 2004,
when they prepared a 26-page Powerpoint entitled "The Unstoppable Nuclear Fuel
Cycle" that called the planned plutonium-based nuclear program outdated and its
obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, said nuclear policymaking was
controlled by "those involved with and interested in the nuclear power
industry." It noted that four of the five members of the Atomic Energy Commission
(AEC) had a professional or financial stake in the industry, presaging a
widespread criticism of the organization in the aftermath of the Fukushima
also predicted that building, operating, and decommissioning the Rokkasho plant
would cost almost $190 billion, and warned that the practicality of building
special reactors to burn the fuel it would make "has yet to be proven." In a
rush to embrace plutonium recycling, the commissioners' report said, Japan's
political leaders had "ignored the lack of conclusive research" and failed to
acknowledge technical criticisms.
Although the authors
urged that their report be published to encourage a public debate, it was
instead suppressed, and they were all swiftly purged from the policy bureau,
according to a source with direct information about METI's response. The Mainichi Shimbun newspaper finally
disclosed the report's existence in 2012.
commission disregarded the policy bureau's advice, and approved initial testing
of the Rokkasho plant in 2006, which contaminated its pipes and equipment with
highly radioactive dust, solvents, and other wastes. That ended any hopes of
simply mothballing the plant. Any future decommissioning would, alone, take
decades and cost $16 billion, according to AEC estimates.
Ten of the country's
electrical utilities, which control around 96 percent of the nation's power
supply, have made campaign donations to pro-nuclear members of the Liberal
Democratic Party -- which has ruled Japan since 1955, with the exception of an 11-month period from 1993 and 1994 and between 2009 and 2012.
The largest of
these, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, or TEPCO, formally ended its direct corporate
donations in 1974. But it systematically encouraged "voluntary" donations by
company executives and managers to a fund-raising entity created by the ruling
party, according to a 2011 investigation by the Asahi Shimbun. At least 448 TEPCO executives donated roughly
$777,000 in total to the entity between 1995 and 2009, according to documents
obtained by the newspaper and shared with the Center for Public Integrity.
Roughly 60 percent
of TEPCO's executives participated, a rate similar to that at other utilities.
Together, they funded $2.5 million of the party's expenses, based on today's
exchange rates. A TEPCO spokesman told the Asahi
Shimbun that the donations were "based on the judgment of the individual
and the company is not involved. We do not encourage such donations."
But TEPCO executives, in interviews with the newspaper's reporters, said the
company repeatedly stipulated how much they should donate -- roughly $3,900 for
top executives, $3,300 for executive vice presidents, and $1,700 for managing
directors. Kono alleged contributions such as these had purchased the loyalty
of the ruling party and officials in the localities that hosted nuclear power
has also been enhanced by its enthusiastic participation in revolving
door-employment practices similar to those involving bureaucrats and companies
in Washington, D.C.
A 2011 METI report,
prepared at the insistence of nuclear opponents in Japan's tiny Communist
Party, said that TEPCO hired 68 high-level government officials between 1960
and 2011. From 1980 to late 2011, the report said, four former top-level
bureaucrats from METI's own Agency for Natural Resources and Energy became vice
presidents at other electric utilities. The practice is known here by the
amusing term, "amakudari" for
appointees who "descended from heaven."
TEPCO officials also
regularly move into key regulatory positions, part of a migration known as "ama-agari" ("ascent to heaven"), which
has involved dozens of top utility officials. Between 2001 and 2011, more than
100 such utility executives were able to keep drawing an industry paycheck
while also working part-time for the government, a practice that is legal here,
according to a former member of the Japanese Diet Lower House Economy and
Industry Committee, who spoke on background. An official working in the Nuclear
Regulation Authority's research division said, on condition of anonymity, that
the ama-agari system is "like having cops and thieves working in the same
Perhaps the most
significant instance of this practice 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 as the parliamentary
secretary of science and technology. Both are posts crucial to the nuclear
energy industry, and Tokio Kano used them to advance legislation enabling
plutonium-based fuel to be burned in some standard reactors -- not just
breeders. He also pushed through a law requiring that all spent nuclear fuel be
sent to Rokkasho or similar Japanese plants.
Taro Kono, the
industry critic, charged that Tokio Kano "acted like the secretary general of
whatever committee had anything to do with energy and electricity." Taro Kono
says that when he himself raised objections to nuclear policies during
committee meetings, Tokio would say "well, there's a strange voice in this
room, but we kind of got unanimous consent" and then proceed.
When Tokio Kano
retired from the parliament in 2011, he returned to TEPCO -- where he had kept
an office throughout his work writing legislation -- as a special adviser.
K0no declined the
Center's request for an interview. But he told the Asahi Shimbun in 2011, after the Fukushima accident that he
remains convinced that nuclear power is sensible. "Reactors were built because
local residents strongly desired them, and it's a fact they generated
employment and income," he said. "Some researchers say that low-dose radiation
is good for your health. It's a persuasive argument."
That same year
he told The New York Times that it was
"disgusting" that his critics considered him a TEPCO "errand boy" merely because
he had the business community's support.
Funds and wastes
cement Rokkasho's role
The Aomori region
where the Rokkasho plant is located, with a windswept coastline and harsh
climate, ranks near the bottom of the nation's 47 prefectures, or statelets, in
per capita income. "You can't grow much," says Taro Kono, the anti-nuclear
activist and lawmaker, who said he understands the plant's local appeal. "It's
a tough place to live."
In the 1980s, the
central government tried and failed to stimulate Aomori's economy with
sugar-beet farming and a tank farm for petroleum reserves, both of which
faltered. So the nuclear plant's construction, which started in 1993, turned
out to be a vital source of jobs, taxes, and even tourism -- contributing
around 88 percent of the village's total tax revenue in 2012, according to
Aomori prefecture officials. A Japanese study last year said it had boosted per
capita income levels by 62 percent.
Moreover, to smooth
the way for nuclear plants, the central government provides financial
compensation to communities that host nuclear sites. In the case of Aomori, it
pays the village -- which has a population of just 12,000 -- $25.9 million in
grants yearly. The grants have amounted to more than $2,300 annually for every
man, woman, and child in the village, according to prefecture officials. The
village's Chamber of Commerce has reported that roughly 70 percent of the
businesses there are now involved with or dependent upon the nuclear industry.
Of course, the
downside of the program for local citizens is that Rokkasho has since become a
storage site for 3,000 tons of highly-radioactive spent fuel from commercial
power plants, waiting to be processed into new plutonium. To win the right to
do this 16 years ago, Japan's electric power monopolies pledged that the vast
bulk of that spent fuel would be recycled as fuel -- or it would be sent back.
But doing so would
swamp spent-fuel pools at reactor sites that are already close to capacity,
Japanese officials say, and could doom the Abe government's plans to reopen
many of Japan's 50 surviving reactors.
renegotiating this agreement -- which many politicians regard as sacrosanct --
is the single biggest challenge to unraveling the plans of the "nuclear
A latent nuclear
After the Fukushima
disaster, some of Kono's political adversaries embraced another argument in
favor of the country's reactors and the Rokkasho plant that may seem surprising
to some in the West: Operating these facilities sends a useful signal to would-be
aggressors that Japan could quickly develop nuclear arms.
pro-nuclear power plant argument that we need to keep the nuclear reactor
running so that we can pretend that we may have a nuclear weapon one day," Kono
Shigeru Ishiba, a former
defense minister who was Kono's rival for a ruling party leadership post in
2009 and is now its general secretary, caused a stir in October 2011 when he
told Sapio, a right-wing magazine,
that Japan's commercial nuclear reactors "would allow us to produce a nuclear
warhead in a short amount of time." He added: "It's a tacit deterrent."
Japan has a pacifist
constitution, and a 47-year-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
Moreover, all of
Japan's existing plutonium stockpile is under International Atomic Energy
Agency safeguards, while its uranium -- a linchpin of any effort to restart the
country's civilian reactors -- is largely imported.
challenges would have to be overcome for Japan to embark on a weapons program,
according to some scholars.
But a potential
linkage between Rokkasho's product and nuclear weapons has hung over the
program from the start. Kumao Kaneko, a 76-year-old former director of the
Nuclear Energy Division of Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told the Center
for Public Integrity that Tokyo pressed the Carter administration in 1977 for
permission to start producing plutonium partly to ensure Japan had a weapons
"We concluded Japan
should not [build] nuclear armaments, while leaving the ability" to do so, said
Kaneko, who retired from the ministry in 1982 to become a director of a Foreign
Ministry-affiliated think tank.
followed a formal, secret study of options for building nuclear arms, conducted
in 1970 at the behest of Yasuhiro Nakasone, then Japan's defense minister.
After two years of work, the group concluded "it would be possible in a legal
sense to possess small-yield, tactical, purely defensive nuclear weapons
without violating the constitution." But it decided that the effort would be
costly, take years, and alienate Japan's neighbors. The country decided instead
to stay under the U.S. nuclear umbrella.
But many prominent
Japanese officials still want the capability to produce nuclear arms if they
were needed, according to Naoto Kan, who held a series of top government
financial and strategic policy positions before becoming Japan's prime minister
from 2010 to 2011, representing the Democratic Party of Japan -- the LDP's main
rival. He said the desire for a nuclear weapons capability is an important
source of support for Japan's plutonium programs.
"Inside Japan, and
that is not only within the Democratic Party of Japan, there are entities who
wish to be able to maintain the ability to produce Japan's own plutonium," Kan
said in an interview with the Center for Public Integrity. "They do not say it
in public, but they wish to have the capability to create nuclear weapons in
case of a threat."
It's a bold
assertion, which independent figures -- like Hiroaki Kodai, a 63-year old
physicist at Kyoto University -- say Japanese society usually does not
tolerate. Kodai, who is an assistant professor, says his own similar
declarations have "not been good for my career."
The United States
has long been concerned about potential development of a Japanese bomb, since
Japan has the scientific skills, infrastructure, and -- most important -- the
raw explosive material in the form of plutonium, hundreds of pounds of
weapons-grade uranium, and the technology 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 a similar
have pursued a two-pronged path to blocking that development: Over the past
four years, they have quietly brought a stream of Japanese diplomats and
military officers into highly restricted U.S. nuclear weapons centers --
including the Strategic Command headquarters in Nebraska, a Minuteman missile
base in Montana, and a Trident submarine base outside Seattle -- to remind them
of the robustness of the U.S. nuclear deterrent.
The United States
also has gently urged Japan to cap or reduce the size of its plutonium
stockpile. Its officials have encouraged Japan to reopen its closed reactors,
in part so any newly-created plutonium can be burned at the same rate it is
being produced. They've also pressed Japan to give up, through repatriation to
the United States, some of its existing plutonium stocks before production gets
But the United
States has not urged Japan to cancel its Rokkasho project, several current and
former senior U.S. and Japanese officials said. Authorities say one reason
Washington has not offered that advice is that killing it -- and all the future
nuclear power plants linked to it -- would increase Japan's dependence on
traditional energy supplies and drive up their price on the world market,
adversely impacting the U.S. economy.
"Obviously what is
done in the long term at Rokkasho is a decision for the Japanese people, the Japanese
government to make," said Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman during a July
2012 press conference in Tokyo. "To the extent that there would be paths
forward for Rokkasho" that could avoid increasing Japan's stockpile of
plutonium, he added, "that would be a good thing."
this, however, with a public pitch for letting Japan use nuclear power to
reduce carbon emissions, acknowledging that it is an important tool "for our
friends and colleagues in Japan ... who are very worried about climate change."
Jon Wolfsthal, a nonproliferation expert formerly on the staff of Vice President Joe Biden and the White
House National Security Council, said many in 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 country.
"They don't need the
United States to tell them that Rokkasho is a giant waste of money and that
there's no need for them to start marching down this road," Wolfsthal said.
"But I'm not sure there's much the U.S. could do about it."
and Yumi Nakayama, staff writers for the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun,
contributed reporting for this article.
This story was published by The Center for
Public Integrity, a nonprofit,
nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.
KOJI SASAHARA/AFP/Getty Images