Japan’s Nuclear Nightmare


[O]n May 30th 2005, Japan’s Supreme Court, in a stunning reversal of a lower court ruling, declared the Monju fast-breeder reactor plant in Fukui Prefecture was safe enough to operate. Monju, which is designed to burn the world’s deadliest substance, plutonium, had been shut down since a December 1995 accident in which a secondary cooling pipe burst. Liquid sodium coolant leaked out and, as sodium burns when it comes into contact with, a fire was ignited.

A subsequent cover-up of the accident by the nuclear power industry and the government was quickly exposed, and Japan, and the world, were astonished, angered at both the lax safety standards and the arrogance of Japan’s pro-nuclear lobby who refused to admit that they had come within just a few minutes of a major disaster.

Fukui citizens opposed to Monju had spent decades battling Japan’s formidable pro-nuclear lobby, which ranges from Japanese utility companies to the U.S. defense industry to media conglomerates like the Yomiuri Shimbun. Despite the fact that plutonium reactors had been mothballed by virtually the entire world (only Russia continues to express official enthusiasm for the concept) because of economic and safety reasons, Japan forged ahead with a plutonium program.

The logic behind plutonium reactors is that because plutonium “breeds” when you burn uranium 238, which has some plutonium isotopes, you end up with more plutonium than you started with. Therefore, you have, in theory, an endless supply of energy. The physics is sound, but the practical dangers are enormous, especially since plutonium is the world’s most dangerous substance. Monju will require 1.2 tons of plutonium to operate. But the half-life of plutonium is 24,000 years (i.e. it takes 24,000 years for plutonium’s radioactivity to halve) and just one millionth of 1 gram of plutonium entering the lungs can cause lung cancer. This is why opposition to Monju has always been quite strong, even among many who advocate conventional uranium reactors.

After losing their case for closing Monju in the Fukui District Court in 2000, the antinuclear groups who were the plaintiffs appealed to the Kanazawa branch of the Fukui High Court which, to the surprise of the jaded antinuclear lobby, ruled in their favor in early 2003.

This time, it was the utilities and pro-nuclear business lobby turn to be shocked and outraged, and they immediately appealed to the Supreme Court. The antinuclear lobby remained convinced it would win, but the open contempt and public disregard with which the pro-nuclear lobby treated the High Court’s decision was ominous. And so, May’s decision against the plaintiffs was almost predictable. Monju is now set to begin burning plutonium in 2008, which would make Japan the world’s only non-nuclear weapons country with a plutonium reactor program.


The Monju decision marked the latest in a series of losses for the antinuclear lobby in Japan and showed once again just how determined the Japanese government was to move forward with nuclear power ― whatever the cost to the environment and regardless of safety or economic concerns. It also came nearly nine months after a major accident at conventional uranium plant Mihama, Fukui Prefecture, not far from where Monju is located.

At 15:22 on August 9th, 2004 a fire alarm sounded within the building at the Mihama No. 3 plant that housed the turbine. A pipe in the secondary coolant system had ruptured, and an estimated 800 tons of water at 140 degrees Celsius was released, resulting in the deaths of five workers of Nihon Arm, a KEPCO sub-contractor.

The pipe in question had never been checked during the 28 years of the plant’s operation. When originally installed, it had been 10 mm thick. After nearly three decades, it had worn down to 1 mm. In the days that followed, the world learned that Nihon Arm had warned KEPCO in April 2003 that there might be problems with that particular section of pipe. KEPCO had failed to take action.

Though KEPCO officials issued strong denials, anti-nuclear activists, and even many nuclear physicists who supported nuclear power, pointed to deregulation of the electric power market as one factor behind the accident. By law, each nuclear power plant has to shut down once a year for inspection. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, plants shut down for three or four months while thousands of workers at the utility and related subcontractors conducted inspections. But since then, the inspection times have gradually been shortened, and currently a plant might shut down for only about six weeks, thus saving on maintenance costs.

Back in the early 1970s, it was thought that the Mihama plant could operate for 30 years, perhaps 40. Now that the Mihama No. 3 plant and many others are 30 years old or more, the utilities say that perhaps a plant’s life can be doubled to 60 years. Yet, at the same time, they claim that in order to continue to provide cheap electricity in the new atmosphere of deregulation, it will be necessary to shorten the length of inspection time to just one month.

In the 2003 White Paper on Nuclear Power, the utilities’ chart for which energy sources will be in use for electric power generation by 2010, includes no mention of alternate energy sources like wind, solar, or biomass. In 2003, nuclear power accounted for about 17 percent of Japan’s total energy basket, as opposed to 8.9 percent for the U.S., 11 percent for the United Kingdom about 13 percent for Germany.

Clearly, despite official pronouncements by METI officials that it will simply remain an important part of Japan’s overall energy mix, nuclear power is being pushed to become the dominant source of electricity if the utilities, and many pro-nuclear officials in the government, have their way. If they succeed, it will be the realization of a dream that began a half-century ago.

In 2004, Japan had 53 nuclear power reactors (52 were in operation), which made it third in terms of number of plants after the United States (103) and France (57). Over the past quarter century, as many other nations attempt to find alternate energy sources, nuclear power has gone from 17 percent of Japan’s total electricity supply in 1990 to 34.6 percent of total supply in 2004. Five more nuclear power plants are currently being built, and the utilities want to increase the 34.6 figure to 40 percent by 2010, with other fuel sources, like liquid natural gas and coal, comprising about 20 percent each and the remainder being sources like hydroelectric power.


Japan’s nuclear power history dates back to the mid-1950s, when a young nationalist politician by the name of Yasuhiro Nakasone became one of the strongest political advocates for a nuclear power program. In 1954, the United States began encouraging the international development of nuclear power for peaceful purposes, under the title of “Atoms for Peace” and Nakasone saw nuclear power as the way to a realize a dream Japan had nurtured since the Meiji period: a cheap and stable energy supply that would reduce dependence on foreign oil.

By the early 1970s, concern about environmental pollution was high, and public pressure over air pollution and the industrial pollution of rivers, lakes, and streams had forced the Diet to pass a number of laws curbing industrial excesses. The pro-nuclear lobby realized nuclear power could be promoted as not only a cheap source of energy but also as an environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuels that would help clear the skies.

Then, in 1979, the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in America alerted many in Japan to the fact that nuclear power plants were not as safe as advertised. Six years later, the accident at Chernobyl not only reinforced those fears but also spurred many ordinary Japanese to join anti-nuclear groups.

Of particular concern to them was Japan’s determination to go ahead with a fast-breeder reactor program despite the growing number of nuclear physicists and economists who doubted their usefulness. FBR programs had been initiated in the United States and were in operation in both the U.S. and Europe in the 1970s, at a time when many experts predicted the world’s supply of uranium would soon be depleted. But that proved not to be the case, and this realization, combined with public unease over handling the world’s most dangerous substance, led the U.S. to abandon the FBR program by the early 1980s. European countries began to follow shortly afterwards.

Yet Japan forged ahead with the controversial FBR program, building a prototype reactor called Fugen and the Monju plant, both in Fukui Prefecture. By the early 1990s, the FBR program was moving forward despite mounting concerns, even among some pro-nuclear groups, that FBRs were too dangerous and too expensive, when the whole program literally crashed and burned with the pipe leak and sodium fire at the Monju plant in December, 1995. Subsequent investigations exposed a litany of problems in both Monju and the nuclear power industry. Indifferent management, lax safety precautions, and cover-ups by the bureaucrats responsible made headlines for weeks afterwards and resulted in a major shake up in how the nuclear industry operated, as public faith in nuclear power plummeted.

The utilities and the nuclear power industry, without abandoning their original goal of operating FBRs, decided an interim solution would be to burn mixed plutonium-uranium fuel, or MOX. But this begat new problems. Japan had no way to make MOX fuel. It had to be manufactured in England or France and then transported halfway around the world.


On the morning of September 30th, 1999, a warm wind was blowing into the bay of Takahama, Fukui Prefecture. It had been cloudy and drizzly the night before, and the day began overcast and slightly humid. But the weather wasn’t what concerned Japan’s antinuclear activists and many residents in the seaside town of Takahama, Fukui Prefecture. Days earlier, two ships, each carrying MOX fuel had arrived in Japanese waters after a long voyage from Sellafield, England. The fuel was to be the first of what Japan hoped would be many shipments of MOX for its conventional nuclear reactors.

KEPCO and national nuclear power officials, Japanese and international antinuclear activists, townspeople and the media all were making plans be in Takahama for what was expected to be one of the largest protests ever, one directed against the arrival of the MOX-laden ship, scheduled to dock the next day.
Then, disaster struck. Not in Takahama, but in Tokaimura, north of Tokyo.

At 10:35 a.m., local media and Tokaimura residents began receiving the first sketchy reports of radiation leaking at a Tokaimura fuel conversion plant. Three workers in the plant had used an ordinary aluminum bucket to pour a uranium mixture into a settling tank, an amount that far exceeded safety limits and caused a nuclear chain reaction. But in the early hours, all was confusion. Rumours of a fire in the plant begin to spread, but police insisted no fire had broken out.

Two hours later, police had blocked roads near the plant. By 3:30 p.m., as the extent of the accident became clearer, 50 families living within a 350 meter radius of the plant were ordered to evacuate. By 5 p.m. the Japan Atomic Research Institute was detecting two to four millisieverts of radiation per hour, or between 10,000 and 20,000 times the normal level, around the site. A radiation advisory to some 200,000 residents living within a 10 kilometer radius of the plant was not issued by Ibaraki Pref. Gov. Masaru Hashimoto until 8 p.m., nine and a half hours after initial reports of a radiation leak. The day ended with the Japanese government saying, in classic understatement, that uncontrolled criticality at the plant was continuing and that a larger area than was initially thought had been affected by radiation.

Two of the three workers who caused the accident ended up dead. It was Japan’s worst nuclear accident ever and in the days and weeks following the accident, Japan was once again reminded of the risks associated with nuclear power. Meanwhile, the ship carrying the MOX fuel for the Takahama plant was entering port, greeted by protestors from around the world. The ship delivered its cargo and KEPCO announced plans to burn the fuel before the end of the year.

Despite KEPCO assurances all was well with the fuel, the antinuclear activists, led by Kyoto-based Aileen Mioko Smith, made contact with anti-nuclear activists in and around the Sellafeld plant and the British media. After much prodding on the part of the activists and the British media, workers at BNFL admitted to The Independent that they had had not done quality control checks properly, falsifying data in order to complete the manufacture of the fuel on time.

Stung by these revelations and BNFL’s subsequent official admission the fuel data had been forged, KEPCO had no choice but to announce it would not burn the MOX. Yet KEPCO was still stubbornly convinced the fuel was safe, saying the decision not to burn the fuel had been reached not for technical reasons but in order to keep the public from worrying.


Today, Japan’s nuclear power industry now faces a host of questions and problems that threaten its future development, and even survival. The main issues are:

1) Reprocessing: Japan is scheduled to open the Rokkasho reprocessing plant in 2007, more than a decade after it was originally supposed to start. Recent admissions that it is cheaper to bury fuel than to recycle it have caused further heated debate, and a few politicians like the LDP’s Kono Taro have openly come out against Rokkasho.

2) Waste Disposal: In 2002, the central government announced it was looking for localities around Japan to host nuclear waste storage facilities. Officially, these would be “mid-term” facilities (i.e. temporary facilities until the fuel can be taken to Rokkasho and reprocessed) but nobody knows how long the fuel would have to remain in storage.

3) Safety: Deregulation of electric power has forced the utilities to scramble and to get more out of their aging nuclear power plants with less money invested. In the 1970s, 30 years was considered the maximum life for a nuclear power plant. But the U.S. has extended the life of its plants, and now the Japanese nuclear power industry has said it wants to explore operating current plants for a total of 40, or even 60 years.

4) Nuclear Weapons: Despite a constant stream of ardent denials from officials that Japan will never use its nuclear power plants for a nuclear weapons program, and despite nuclear power industry bureaucrats and pro-nuclear academics who insist, wrongly, that reactor fuel cannot be used for a nuclear weapons, domestic and international concern remains that Japan can, and would, use such fuel for a weapons program if faced with an arms race in East Asia.

5) The Future of Nuclear Power: Finally, and most importantly, is the very issue of the future role of nuclear power. Japanese officials still say that nuclear power remains a very important part of Japan’s overall energy mix. While not always in tune of late, the pro-nuclear lobby has been basically singing the same four-part harmony for decades: (1) Japan is a resource-poor country; (2) Oil from the Middle East means attempting to secure a finite resource from a politically unstable part of the world; (3) alternate energy sources such as wind and solar power remain too expensive and are not as reliable as fossil fuel energy sources; therefore, (4) nuclear power offers Japan a cheap, inexpensive (when you ignore construction, maintenance, and environmental costs and focus only on the amount it costs to generate electricity) and reliable energy source.

Since the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997, the pro-nuclear lobby has also rushed to add that nuclear power is needed by Japan to meet its commitments to cut greenhouse gases. Meanwhile, huge Japanese firms like Mitsubishi and Toshiba, which have traditionally supplied much of the technology to Japan’s nuclear power industry, are hedging their bets that they can continue to do lots of business domestically. For they have suddenly become very politically correct when it comes to international energy and environment issues, as they smell the potential for constructing, and selling equipment for, nuclear reactors to China and other parts of Asia now choking from fumes of cheap coal being burnt for fuel.

Anti-nuclear forces have not yet been able to formulate an effective movement to stop nuclear power. This is partially because nuclear power has come to be seen, even among many Japanese who don’t like it, as a necessary evil. But there are other reasons as well, and some have to do with the anti-nuclear lobby itself. While fiercely dedicated to their cause and often very well informed, anti-nuclear groups in Japan tend to be organized in small, tight-knit cliques. The result is a movement that is extremely localized and often insular. Furthermore, many in the anti-nuclear movement are unable, or unwilling, to reach out to people who are much younger than themselves, or to the broader public, including many in the government and in private industry.
Thus, both the pro- and anti-nuclear groups are guilty of intellectual ossification, as they continue to snipe at each other, hold their own positions, and are often hostile to open discussion of public energy needs. In a land where consensus, harmony, and cooperation are supposedly more innate than in many other cultures, the nuclear power debate is remarkable for bitter, entrenched emotions and grudges on both sides that are now decades old.

This is a tragedy. For Japan desperately needs to hold a serious, sustained, and wide-reaching national debate on how it plans to meet its energy needs in the 21st century, and whether or not nuclear power should be part of that energy mix. Japan once had a dream that nuclear power would be a deus ex machina that would answer the dreams of a country with in sufficient quantities of fossil fuel resources. Japan’s pro-nuclear lobby still continues to cling to that dream, but the history of Japan’s nuclear industry demonstrates only too clearly that their dream has turned into a nightmare for not only the rest of Japan but also the world.