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.
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.
Prime Minister 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.
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 reprocessing — making new plutonium-based fuels from old reactor fuel — is 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." 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 dinner
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.
The 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.
Kono speaks 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 here.
A desire for the atom
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 suppressed
Throughout 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 promoters corrupt.
The presentation, 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 disaster.
The presentation 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.
Meanwhile, the 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 plants.
TEPCO’s influence 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 police station."
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.
Kono says renegotiating this agreement — which many politicians regard as sacrosanct — is the single biggest challenge to unraveling the plans of the "nuclear village."
A latent nuclear arsenal?
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.
"There’s a 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 said.
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 control.
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.
These large 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 option.
"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.
That decision 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 capability.
U.S. policymakers 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 under way.
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."
Poneman coupled 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."
Toshihiro Okuyama and Yumi Nakayama, staff writers for the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, contributed reporting for this article.