How Japan Learned to Love Nuclear Power

January 27, 2013

A sparsely populated, wind-swept hook, Shimokita peninsula juts from the northern tip of Honshu, Japan’s main island, with a stark beauty reminiscent of the classical brush paintings of the 16th Century. Eagles hover over rolling pastures and swans bathe in quiet marshes. Idyllic but not ideal. With its long, cold winters and infertile soil, Shimokita is one of the country’s poorest and most inhospitable regions. Homes are huddled high on the hills, away from the often raging sea and the occasional threat of tsunamis.

Hardy villagers fish for squid and salmon, hugging the coast in small boats. Old men and women gather seaweed from the rocky shores to be dried for food on the boat landings; each village of the 10-mile-wide peninsula has a large, concrete jetty to protect its little fleet. Otherwise, the look and the slow, steady rhythm of life along these frigid waters seems little changed from generations past.

But looks deceive. While fishing remains the heart of the village economy, its role is rapidly shrinking. There are not enough jobs to go around. Where fishing boats used to carry 20-man crews, today automated equipment allows two or three men to operate them. And many young men aren’t interested in the dangerous, seasonal work. Most work year round on construction crews in distant cities such as Tokyo and Osaka, where they can count on regular income to send home to their families.

It has never been an easy life in Shimokita, and for as long as anyone can remember locals have drawn comfort and guidance from shamans, blind women who rub together long rosaries and commune with ancestral spirits at a nearby lake that reeks with the foul smell of sulfur atop a volcano called Osorezan, literally “frightful mountain.”

Now, in hopes of bringing prosperity to the region and keeping their young at home, villagers across the peninsula are embracing an even more frightening neighbor: nuclear power.

KEIZO KAWARADA IS MAYOR OF HIGASHIDORI VILLAGE, A SERIES OF small hamlets scattered along the eastern coast of the peninsula. The village, whose population has shrunk by 25% to 9,000 in the past three decades because of the lack of jobs, has just struck it rich. Kawarada is all smiles as he greets a visitor in his expansive office on the top floor of a three-story, mirrored structure that rises like a mirage above a desolate hillside. He will soon preside over a council meeting in the new and luxurious domed village conference center. Among the topics of discussion: plans for an extensive sports complex and homes for the elderly.

The source of the village’s municipal building spree? Higashidori agreed last year, after a 27-year-battle, to allow two electric utilities to build four nuclear reactors on its coastal land nearby. In return, Higashidori will receive an estimated $1.75 billion in government subsidies and tax revenues during the next 10 years. The village has already received millions of dollars in loans in anticipation of the money. Kawarada notes enthusiastically that the utilities bought enough land to accommodate 20 reactors, though there are no immediate plans to build more than the proposed four.

Opposition? Kawarada brushes off the question. The only opposition to nuclear power is from the kind of people who opposed the introduction of electricity decades ago, he says. “They used to say if you stood under a lamp, you would go bald,” Kawarada recalls. “They talked of deformed babies because they didn’t understand the technology.”

A few miles away in his modest, wood-frame house, on a day when heavy winds have kept him from taking his boat out, fisherman Mitsugu Higashida sits cross-legged with his thick brows furrowed in a frown. On the wall behind him is the large, framed fin of a 440-pound tuna he caught in his youth. As a senior member of the fishermens union that sold part of its fishing rights to the power companies so that they could build facilities to draw sea water to cool the reactors, Higashida, like the other union members, will personally receive about $117,000. Nevertheless, he is disgusted by the deal.

“A fisherman should never sell the sea,” he says. Yet Higashida, an influential member of the village’s 663-member union, had a hand in determining the fate he now rebukes. He persuaded the members to demand $416,000 each from the power companies in exchange for their fishing rights in the vicinity of the proposed plants. Only that amount, he argued, could allow the fishermen to buy the boats they would need to fish in the high seas should coastal waters become polluted by the plants. He concedes now that he had a separate agenda. “My feeling was that they would never be able to pay that,” Higashida says. But the companies were willing to talk money, if not in those amounts, and once the fishermen began negotiating it was just a matter of time. The issue had become how much, not whether to go nuclear.

“This money will be used up in a few years on drinking and fixing up homes,” says a discouraged Higashida. “And then what? We will have had just enough money to live a bad life.” He says the long battle has split up friends and family. Many people now avoid one another in the village. “It used to be peaceful here, now it is divided.”

Higashidori is just one of three sites on Shimokita peninsula that have been targeted, because of their remoteness, for nuclear development. In Rokkasho, a village 25 miles south of Higashidori, a giant nuclear complex is springing up beside a picturesque marsh. A uranium-enrichment plant and a low-level radioactive waste dump capable of holding 1 million drums of nuclear waste have already been completed. And there are plans to add a plutonium reprocessing plant and a high-level radioactive waste dump. Two years ago, there were massive rallies to stop the projects. Today, Rokkasho boasts large new homes, two museums and a massive meeting hall, a testament to the trade-off the village has made.

North of Higashidori, in the village of Oma, anti-nuclear locals are in the last throes of a losing struggle against the construction of a new kind of nuclear power plant called an advanced thermal reactor, which will be able to burn plutonium extracted at the Rokkasho reprocessing facility. All that remains for approval is the financial settlement–cash that will be granted fishermen to compensate for their possible losses.

If all goes as planned, power companies–with full backing of the government’s financial and political resources–will invest more than $20 billion to create in Shimokita peninsula what then-Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone predicted nearly a decade ago would be “a mecca for the nuclear power industry.”

SHIMOKITA’S FATE IS BEING DETERMINED FAR AWAY, IN THE CONCRETEmaze of Tokyo, where neon signs and office lights blaze deep into the night. In hopes of becoming energy independent, Japan has set a goal of constructing 40 new reactors during the next 20 years, more than doubling its capacity to use nuclear power to generate electricity. That would push Japan past France and the former Soviet Union to make it second only to the United States in nuclear-power generation.

But the battle speaks to more than nuclear power. The way the Japanese government, in concert with industry, has used money, jobs and propaganda to overcome opposition and turn Shimokita peninsula into a key element of its nuclear strategy is a telling example of how a country’s leadership can push through policies it has determined to be in the nation’s best interests, even if those policies are unpopular.

Officials describe their drive to expand nuclear power as an almost messianic mission. “We are being tested by God, by history, to see if we can use nuclear power properly,” says Kazuhisa Mori, executive managing director of the Japan Atomic Industry Forum, an industry-funded organization.

The driving force of Japan’s policy is insecurity. Few here have forgotten that the United States once embargoed oil exports to Japan, a move that contributed to Tokyo’s decision to bomb Pearl Harbor, drawing America into World War II. “We are dependent completely on outside sources for fuel,” says Ryukichi Imai, adviser to the Atomic Energy Commission and an influential member of Japan’s nuclear industry establishment–an alliance of bureaucracy, politics and industry. “We aren’t talking about the fear of a day’s blackout. We are talking about not having enough energy to run our industry. Many of us still remember the days of the war when there was no light and no food. Life was terrible.”

For real energy security, Imai says, Japan must not only build more nuclear power plants but also must complete the nuclear fuel cycle. This means taking spent uranium fuel from nuclear power plants, reprocessing it to extract plutonium to use as a new, domestically produced fuel source. Today, uranium is so affordable and the process of extracting plutonium so costly that most other industrialized nations have rejected the option. But Imai says Japan is planning for the time, maybe three decades hence, when the world may begin to run out of oil and uranium resources could grow scarce. “You have to invest in plutonium today to use it in the next century,” Imai says. “It’s Saudi oil, Chinese oil and natural gas, Australian uranium or our plutonium. It is not an option we can forgo.” Nuclear power currently accounts for 26% of Japan’s electrical generation.

Although nuclear power plants are owned by Japan’s private electric utilities, some of the largest in the world, the risky operations are indemnified by the government. In addition, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party allows power companies to charge high electricity rates ($100 a month for a two-bedroom apartment is not unusual) to pay for new plant construction. And, recently, even the Socialist Party, to show it is becoming less ideological and more “realistic,” is considering a proposal to support the construction of nuclear plants, a radical departure from past policy.

In addition, Japan’s nuclear alliance has fought a vigorous battle to undermine anti-nuclear activists and to win the hearts and minds of those in important regions such as Shimokita.

The nuclear complexes planned at Rokkasho and Oma are examples of how the alliance operates. The complexes are financed and managed by Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd., a private company made up of 105 firms, including Japan’s nine major utilities. The company gets its technology and engineering expertise from the Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corp., a quasi-public corporation that has an annual budget of $1.7 billion and includes as shareholders 35 leading banks and insurance companies and the three nuclear plant manufacturers. These ventures operate at huge losses but are sustained by government subsidies that were set aside to finance risky nuclear projects. Much of this public money is used for propaganda.

The $25-million Rokkasho Visitors Center, for instance, is a high-tech ode to nuclear power. The center uses elaborate robotics, games, and flashing, life-like displays to argue the importance and safety of nuclear power. Since it was established in 1991, modeled in part after a larger Tokyo museum promoting nuclear power, 139,000 Japanese, tourists and nuclear industry officials from as far away as Britain have visited the center in remote Shimokita. Hostesses in Space-Age, baby-blue uniforms show visitors around the exhibits. They point to a display that shows how drums containing radioactive waste are checked by robots for holes and then laid in man-made caverns with 3-foot-thick, steel-reinforced concrete walls. The exhibits describe how radiation is not as dangerous as most people think–and more prevalent. Busloads of schoolchildren are instructed that food, clock dials and even hot spring baths contain radiation.

Scientists are sent to Shimokita to lecture on the safety of nuclear power. They are paid from a $40-million annual budget set aside by the government for the express purpose of “gaining the understanding of locals” on nuclear issues. Rokkasho council members were also flown to France and the United States, at industry expense, to visit nuclear facilities there.

“We got a feel for what these (plutonium) reprocessing plants are like,” says Shojo Oikawa, an innkeeper who went to France as a member of the Rokkasho council. “These plants really aren’t dangerous. The machines are so well made that if something goes wrong, it stops automatically.” He says nuclear opponents exaggerate the danger. “In a car, if the engine stops, it is in disrepair. If it crashes, it’s an accident. To say a nuclear power plant that has stopped has had an accident is wrong. It really just needs repair,” he says.

FIVE YEARS AGO, YUMIKO OSHITA ESTABLISHED THE ASSOCIATION TO KEEP Out Death Ashes, a group that has been fighting plans to dump radioactive waste in Rokkasho. The name is an evocative reference to the “death ashes” that fell from the mushroom clouds of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs in 1945, the violent introduction of the Nuclear Age. The horror of the American bombings remains burned in Japan’s mass memory.

Oshita, an associate professor of classical Japanese literature at Hachinohe Engineering University, based in a port town just south of Shimokita, led a drive that collected a million signatures on a petition to stop the Rokkasho development. Unable to win the battle at the village level, she worked long hours trying to build support for an eventually unsuccessful anti-nuclear gubernatorial candidate in the broader prefecture. That 1991 effort landed her in the hospital with a bleeding ulcer.

She’s frustrated that the serious issue of nuclear safety has been reduced to a debate over fishermen and how much money they will settle for. “Is the ocean just the property of the fishermen?” Oshita asks.

But anti-nuclear sentiments, once a major political issue in Japan, have waned under government pressure. The decision of the Higashidori villagers to accept nuclear plants was a major setback for the activists. After the Soviet nuclear accident at Chernobyl in 1985, there was a wave of public opposition to nuclear power. Many projects were put on hold. Higashidori was the first new nuclear plant siting in Japan in six years and was one of the most blatant cases of utility companies’ using money to win over locals.

In 1984, after initially being rebuffed by the Higashidori fishermens union, Tokyo Electric and Tohoku Electric, the two power companies hoping to put nuclear reactors on the site, opened a joint “preparatory office” with 35 full-time employees. Their sole job was “gaining the understanding” of the fishermen. “I would go to a friend’s house and there would be guys from the power companies,” Higashida, the fisherman, says. Villagers would be taken out to expensive meals. “Guys who used to be vocal in opposing the plants suddenly became quiet,” Higashida notes.

“If someone asks the power company for help in getting their son a job, they would help out. People feel beholden. That is how opposition crumbles.”

Last summer, in the final vote, two-thirds of the fishermen voted for a settlement.

NOT EVEN THE STAUNCHEST OPPONENTS EXPECT JAPAN’S NUCLEAR FACILITIES to create a Hiroshima-style disaster, but Oshita and her colleagues have raised serious safety questions about the Rokkasho facility. Japan is riddled with earthquakes, and some of the worst temblors have occurred in Shimokita.

Nuclear facilities will be designed to withstand a lot of shaking, but the Rokkasho plutonium processing plant and radioactive waste dumps are to be built on unstable ground right above a fault. “There is nothing you can do if the ground cracks,” says geologist Sunao Ogose, who has worked with anti-nuclear activists. Minutes of a meeting that Ogose says were leaked to him in 1988 record power company officials discussing how to hide the fact that there was a fault under the Rokkasho site. Today, officials acknowledge the fault’s existence but insist that it is not active.

Potentially the most dangerous plant to be built at Rokkasho would be the plutonium reprocessing facility. A significant leak of radioactivity could result in thousands of deaths, asserts Jinzaburo Takagi, executive director of the Citizen’s Nuclear Information Center, a nuclear engineer and one of the few anti-nuclear activists with a technical background.

Takagi also says that marshy grounds around Rokkasho make the site unsuitable as a nuclear waste dump. Water could seep through any cracks in the concrete walls of the facilities, polluting the ground water used for drinking in the area. Most dumping sites in America are in isolated, dry, desert areas.

Japanese officials also often downplay the seriousness of the waste problem that has hounded the nuclear industries of the United States and other industrial nations. Mori of the Japan Atomic Energy Forum, for example, refers to Japan’s traditional craftsmanship when talking about the problem of storing waste that will remain radioactive for thousands of years. “Storage isn’t difficult even in Japan’s unstable soil,” he says. “Horyuji temple (in Nara, the ancient capital near Kyoto) is made of wood but it has been standing for 1,000 years.”

But Japan’s record in developing nuclear technology is often spotty. For instance, a nuclear-powered ship called Mutsu, named after the Shimokita peninsula port at which it was anchored, has leaked radiation. The Mutsu has taken to the sea only four times since being built in 1967, and its nuclear reactor is now being dismantled. Meanwhile, Japan’s nuclear power plants, once the envy of the world with the lowest incidence of shutdowns, have recently been plagued with near-accidents. In July, the nation’s Nuclear Safety Commission, a government oversight agency, belatedly ordered utilities to work out measures to deal with serious accidents. Previously the commission insisted such measures were unnecessary because accidents couldn’t occur.

Unlike the United States’ Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Japan’s oversight agency has little power. And the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, which is responsible for actually enforcing safety standards, is also charged with promoting nuclear power.

Despite the obvious problems within the industry and with government regulators, however, activists find it difficult to organize resistance to the power companies. “Japan is pushing this as a nation. You can’t go against that,” says Rikisaburo Terashita. He should know. Terashita has been fighting the government for more than two decades. From 1969 to 1973, as mayor of Rokkasho, Terashita led the fight against a government plan to build a massive petrochemical complex behind the village. He lost and was voted out of office. The complex was abandoned because of the oil crisis, but the land was sold to the power companies to develop a nuclear fuel facility.

TERASHITA, WHO NOW WORKS WITH GROUPS LIKE OSHITA’S, BEGAN TOhold meetings with villagers to explain the risks involved in a facility that processes plutonium. It wasn’t easy. Village officials refused to allow public meeting halls to be used for anti-nuclear gatherings. Villagers would gather instead on the concrete landings where the fishing boats were stored for the winter.

After Chernobyl, a “mothers’ group” sprang up to fight nuclear development. But small successes were followed by big defeats. In 1990, the anti-nuclear groups managed to elect a moderate as mayor in Rokkasho. He promised to freeze nuclear development efforts. Once in office, however, he announced that the planned nuclear facilities were safe and would proceed as planned.

Other opposition has crumbled as construction activity at the nuclear sites created hundreds of new jobs. Inns are filled with technicians and engineers from the power companies. New housing complexes are springing up. Local merchants say the business is welcome and they can’t afford to alienate their new customers. Says one restaurant owner: “We businessmen can’t oppose it or we lose business.” In fact, critics charge that city contracts for gardening, maintenance and even for archeological digs are steered away from nuclear opponents and their relatives.

Still, villagers are acutely aware of the trade-off they are making. A few see Rokkasho as playing an important role for the nation. “We don’t want to be dependent on America for everything like during World War II,” says Takeo Mikado, a restaurant owner and member of the village council, somewhat defensively. “Then we are finished. We should go 100% nuclear.”

But Mikado’s wife’s perspective is more typical of the local view. “It is frightening but we have nothing else,” she says quietly. “We have to make a living.” A young official sipping coffee at the restaurant counter pipes in: “Anyway, there is no use even trying (to stop the plan). It’s like trying to stop a train.”

Nevertheless, groups such as Oshita’s continue to fight. “It is expensive and tiring; they are waiting for us to fall apart,” she says. “They have huge sums of money and are supported by the government; we are working from pocket money.” These days, Oshita is focusing her energy on the courts, where she is challenging the Rokkasho nuclear complex on grounds of safety. The courts, however, have traditionally sided with the government.

Opponents of nuclear power do have two things on their side: economics and foreign pressure. Because of an international uproar over Japan’s recent import of 1.7 tons of plutonium by ship from France, reprocessed from Japanese spent fuel, Tokyo is considering delaying some elements of its nuclear effort.

And although Japan will proceed this year with plans to operate an experimental breeder reactor, so called because it produces more plutonium than it consumes, in western Japan, there is talk that construction of a commercial version of the plant will be postponed. The United States, Germany and France dropped plans for breeder reactors after tens of billions of dollars were spent because of technical and safety concerns. Power companies may also delay construction of the plutonium processing plant at Rokkasho because of the high cost of plutonium.

TERASHITA, THE FORMER mayor of Rokkasho, spends most of his time these days setting nets in the nearby marshes to catch tiny fish, which he uses to make salty snacks to be eaten with sake. His wife operates a small candy shop out of their home. Terashita says his son, now 50, is a policeman in a nearby town and finds him a “troublesome old man” because of his vocal anti-nuclear views. Kids taunt him by calling him henji (strange old man). But Terashita’s dignified manner and the pictures, banners and other mementos of anti-nuclear campaigns tacked on his walls reflect a pride in his long, if vain, battle against the government. A battered sign outside the candy shop offers: “Help for the refugees of nuclear power.”

Up the coast, at twilight, the village of Higashidori grows energetic as fishing boats return and villagers help unload the day’s catch. What do they think of the nuclear plants? “The whole thing is a big bother,” says one elderly woman as she packs fish into ice-filled plastic foam containers to ready them for trucking. “All six of my children are gone. They won’t come back anyway.”

Higashidori council member Satoshi Nishiyama wants to see young people back at the village but he wonders whether the money from the plants, now being spent on Mayor Kawarada’s fancy village hall and various expensive projects, will really help. Says Nishiyama: “What we really need is a place for us old folks to play croquet.”

Fisherman Higashida says: “From old times we have lived off of fishing. We can’t suddenly stop and work on the ground. The salmon come in droves. To put nuclear power plants in such a fruitful place is ridiculous.” The old man also doesn’t want to leave a legacy that could haunt his progeny. “The poison from nuclear plants lasts hundreds of years,” he says. “We shouldn’t pass that anxiety on to our kids and grandkids.”

Leslie Helm

About the Author

Leslie Helm

Leslie Helm was born and raised in Yokohama, Japan, where his family has lived since 1869. He has worked as Tokyo correspondent for Business Week and the Los Angeles Times. It was during his years abroad that he adopted two Japanese children and began the research that would result in Yokohama Yankee. Helm is currently editor of Seattle Business magazine. Leslie graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a B.A. in political science and an M.A. in Asian studies. He attended the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism on a U.S. Japan Friendship Commission fellowship. Helm is currently editor of Seattle Business magazine.

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