The End Of Nuclear Energy In Japan?

“I’m calling for zero nuclear power,” said Junichiro Koizumi, the hugely popular former prime minister of Japan, on Tuesday at a lecture in Nagoya.

He’d served from 2001 to 2006. In 2005, he’d led the Liberal Democratic Party to win an extraordinarily large parliamentary majority. Then he groomed Shinzo Abe to become his successor. By September 2006, Abe was PM – only to get kicked out a year later. Now that Abe is PM again and is trying to restore the scandal-plagued nuclear industry to its former glory, Koizumi’s words ripped into his policies at the perfect moment.

Though retired from politics since 2009, Koizumi remains influential. He was pro-nuclear throughout his career. But on Tuesday, he said that the earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 and the subsequent nuclear fiasco in Fukushima should be used as an opportunity to build a resource-recycling society. And he called on his former protégé to abandon nuclear power.

It wasn’t the first time he’d slammed into Japan’s formerly sacred and omnipotent, but now hated industry. In a speech two month after the nuclear fiasco, he called for weaning the country off its dependence on nuclear power, the Asahi Shimbun reported. During the election last December, when he was speaking in support of an LDP candidate, he called for reducing the number of nuclear powerplants “to zero as much as possible.”

And on August 26, his words made it into the Mainichi Shimbun. If he were an active politician, he’d want “to convince lawmakers to move in the direction of zero nuclear plants,” he said. Now would be the ideal time to move that direction. All 50 nuclear reactors were off line. All opposition parties favored zero nuclear power. It could be done “as long as the prime minister made the decision” – putting the onus squarely on his former protégé. And nuclear politics in Japan haven’t been the same since.

The next blast came on September 24 at a forum in Tokyo. He talked about his trip to Finland in August. The purpose was to inspect the Onkalo spent-fuel repository. He was accompanied by engineers from the Japanese nuclear industry. They all went to look at this marvel, 400 meters underground. It was designed to hold and seal highly radioactive waste long enough for it to become harmless, namely 100,000 years.

“One cannot fathom a time of 100,000 years in the future,” he said.

It’s unknown if the facility can survive this long. How do you inform people this far in the future of the dangers that lurk beneath? And he wondered if such a facility, imperfect as it was, could ever be built in Japan, given the shifting ground and constant earthquakes. That lack of final repository was “the first reason,” he said, why Japan should have zero nuclear plants.

“Some people may say it is irresponsible to call for zero nuclear plants,” he said, “but I think it is even more irresponsible not to have a disposal site for the waste or even any prospect of constructing such a facility.”

He now doubted the claims by experts in the industry that nuclear energy was “safe, clean, and inexpensive” and wondered “if human beings can really control nuclear energy.”

“The Japanese have never knuckled under to natural disasters but have always overcome them to further develop the nation,” he said. “We are now at a major turning point for creating a recyclable society through energy sources based on natural resources. Opportunity lies in a pinch. That is how we should be looking at the situation.”

But Koizumi hadn’t turned against his former protégé, a “source close to the Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office” whispered to the Asahi Shimbun. Instead, his attacks on Abe’s pro-nuclear policies were efforts to protect Abe by nudging him on a track that would be politically successful, in a country with immense local opposition to nuclear power. Koizumi “does, after all, have an outstanding sense for how the political world operates,” the source said.

Koizumi remains influential. His son, Shinjiro Koizumi, is a member of the Lower House. And now the Abe administration, according to the source, is trying to figure out if Koizumi’s zero-nuclear position is becoming a broader movement within the LDP.

“The message Koizumi is sending is that moving too strongly in that direction could hurt the administration, even though it may have high support ratings now,” a source in the LDP told the paper. “The comments by Koizumi can also serve as a coastal levee of sorts for Abe who faces pressure from lawmakers with close ties to the electric power industry. I believe Abe understands what is happening.”

So Abe responded. In September, he stunned reporters when he said that the country would “lower the ratio of nuclear energy” over the next three years and “make every effort to accelerate the spread of renewable energy sources and promote energy conservation.” For some, it was a sea change.

On Tuesday in Nagoya, Koizumi laid out his case. “If the government and LDP now came out with a policy of zero nuclear plants, the nation could come together in the creation of a recyclable society unseen in the world,” he said. Tremors went through the nuclear industry and the bureaucrats that aid and abet it. 

It wasn’t about morals or the environment, but about economics. Nuclear plants were expensive to build, though their operational costs were relatively low. But then there were the costs of decommissioning the plants, which he said, would take “40 to 50 years,” the costs and issues associated with storing the nuclear waste in sealed-off facilities for 100,000 years, and the enormous costs and consequence of a nuclear accident. Simply put: “nuclear energy is the most expensive form of power generation,” he said.

Catastrophic nuclear accidents, like Chernobyl or Fukushima, are very rare, we’re told incessantly. But when they occur, they’re costly. So costly that the French government, when it came up with estimates, kept them secret. But the report was leaked: an accident at a single reactor in a thinly populated part of France could cost over three times France’s GDP. Read…. Potential Cost Of A Nuclear Accident? So High It’s A Secret!

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