Japan must say no to nuclear!

Despite the Fukushima disaster, the Japanese government seems wedded to its nuclear vision. Outspoken politician Kono Taro has other ideas, as he explains to Tina Burrett.

Kono Taro is not a typical Japanese politician. In a culture that values consensus and moderation, Kono is outspoken and bold. But these are difficult times for Japan, with 2011’s natural and nuclear disasters compounding an already palpable sense of political and economic crisis within Japanese society. The disasters that occurred on 11 March 2011 painfully highlighted Japan’s lack of strong political leadership. Japan’s citizens are desperate for a leader with vision to lead them back to prosperity and security. Given Japan’s political current climate, Kono Taro’s moment might finally have arrived.

Kono Taro

World Economic Forum under a CC Licence

When we meet in his office in Nagatacho, the heart of Japanese government, Kono is visibly exhausted. For months, he has spent every evening in study groups composed of his parliamentary peers, investigating various areas of policy. The objective is to publish a book that will act as Kono’s personal manifesto and launch his bid to become prime minister. Top of his agenda is a radical rewriting of Japan’s energy policy.


Since the meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi last year, many Japanese citizens have become concerned about the safety of Japan’s nuclear reactors. But for Kono Taro, the Fukushima disaster was all too predictable. Kono began campaigning for an end to nuclear power on first entering parliament in 1996. Soon after he was elected, negotiations began on what would become the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. The discussions at Kyoto prompted Kono to start his own study group on energy and the environment ‘to see if the Japanese government’s policy on climate change was feasible. The government were talking about adding 20 new nuclear reactors to Japan’s existing nuclear infrastructure. After looking at the science on which the policy depended, I concluded that the government’s policy was unrealistic.’

The power industry’s hold over the media prevents Japan from engaging in a national debate on nuclear power

Kono raised his concerns over the government’s nuclear strategy at the headquarters of his party, the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP), the conservative party that ruled Japan almost continuously from 1955 until August 2009. The reaction of party elders to his questions startled Kono. ‘They asked me, “Are you a communist?” I responded, “I’m asking a legitimate question, please give me a sensible answer”, but they never did.’

Unperturbed, Kono took his concerns to the media, but was surprised to find that ‘journalists didn’t seemed interested’. The few newspaper reporters who were interested were told to drop the story by their editors. Eventually, Kono was invited to air his criticisms of Japan’s nuclear industry in a three-part television interview. ‘But the day after the first part of the interview was shown, power company representatives came to the channel’s managers and threatened to pull their sponsorship if the other two interview segments were broadcast,’ says Kono. That was seven years ago, and the rest of the interview remains unaired. A radio station that broadcast a similar interview with Kono also encountered problems with the power companies. Long after the interview, Kono was back at the radio station. ‘I ran into some of the journalists who’d interviewed me about the nuclear industry and they said as a result of my appearance they’d almost been fired.’

Legalized bribery

Kono argues that the power industry’s hold over the media prevents Japan from engaging in a national debate on nuclear power. ‘Energy companies buy huge amounts of advertising in the print and electronic media. But these companies are monopolies and don’t need to advertise to attract customers. They don’t buy advertising to sell their product, but to keep the media silent. Commercials are legalized bribery’. In Kono’s view, it is dependence on advertising revenues from the energy companies that has muffled criticism of nuclear power in the Japanese mainstream media since the Fukushima disaster.

Kono is simultaneously a conservative and a radical, a capitalist and an environmentalist, a Japanese patriot and an internationalist

Japan’s nuclear industry uses its considerable financial resources to buy political and bureaucratic support. ‘Senior officials from METI (Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry) often receive lucrative jobs in the energy sector after they retire,’ says Kono. Politicians are also part of Japan’s nuclear village. ‘Many members of the LDP receive political donations from TEPCO [owners of the Fukushima Daiichi plant]. Japanese elections are expensive. In terms of time and money, running for office is the equivalent of starting a small business,’ Kono explains. He believes the current Japanese government, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), are also beholden to the nuclear industry. ‘The DPJ is helped financially by the energy sector labour unions. The unions fear for the jobs of their members if the nuclear industry is dismantled’, he says. The labour unions’ concerns are understandable, as in Japan’s rural communities, nuclear power plants are often the main employer, with other local businesses depending on outsourcing from the plant.

Fukushima 1 Nuclear Power Plant

kawamoto takua under a CC Licence

To expose the political influence of the nuclear industry, Kono is challenging Japan’s politicians to reveal the amount they have received from the energy companies over the past 10 years. At the time of writing, no one had accepted his challenge.


Kono is one of the few politicians in Tokyo who has never taken money, or any other kind of support, from Japan’s energy companies. His reputation for integrity makes him popular with Japanese voters. At the 2005 election, Kono received the second-largest majority in Japanese electoral history. Even in August 2009, when his party lost office, Kono was returned to parliament with a healthy majority. Kono’s seemingly contradictory qualities give him appeal beyond the LDP’s usual base. He is simultaneously a conservative and a radical, a capitalist and an environmentalist, a Japanese patriot and an internationalist. Unusually for a politician, Kono is open about his ambition to lead his party and country. Unfortunately, the outspokenness that makes Kono popular with a broad spectrum of Japanese voters has led to clashes with traditionalist elements within his own party. Kono was recently sacked from the LDP shadow cabinet. In 2009, his bid for the LDP leadership was blocked by the party’s conservative hierarchy.

‘Japanese voters don’t know the power they have over politicians. This is a democracy, but the people don’t realize that they are the masters and that we politicians are the slaves’

Unsurprisingly, his rough treatment at the hands of his own party has left Kono lacking in party loyalty. To Japan’s anti-nuclear voters, Kono says: ‘At the next election, vote for a candidate who is against nuclear power, regardless of which party supports them.’ Since the Fukushima disaster, Kono has been both saddened and shocked by the sense of helplessness among ordinary voters opposed to nuclear power. ‘People ask me, “what can we do?” They genuinely don’t know how to influence the political process. This is not surprising, since the LDP was in power for more than 50 years. I tell people, “go and see your parliamentary representatives and tell them your views”. But people are surprised and say, “can we do that?” Japanese voters don’t know the power they have over politicians. This is a democracy, but the people don’t realize that they are the masters and that we politicians are the slaves.’ For Kono, this lack of public confidence partly explains why protests against nuclear power in Japan after Fukushima were so poorly attended. Another factor, according to Kono, is the history of the anti-nuclear movement in Japan. ‘In the past, a lot of leftwing groups used anti-nuclear marches as a recruitment instrument. People are therefore suspicious of protest organizers’ motives.’

Nuclear distortion

The political influence wielded by the nuclear industry is just one of several reasons why Japan’s government is reluctant to give up nuclear power. Another important factor is the warped sense of security nuclear energy brings to a country devoid of domestic sources of fossil fuels. In 1973, as oil prices rocked as a consequence of war in the Middle East, Japan’s government adopted a national energy strategy centred on nuclear power. Today, concerns over political volatility in the Middle East continue to undermine Japanese confidence in the region as a reliable source of energy. Given Japan’s historically poor relations with Russia, politicians in Tokyo are equally unwilling to rely on natural gas imports from the Russian Far East.

Nuclear power has been sold to the Japanese public as a secure ‘semi-domestic’ source of energy. But this is a distortion, according to Kono. ‘The government’s energy strategy is based on the development of fast breeder reactors, but these reactors are not yet online. They were supposed to be available by the end of the 1980s. The target was then delayed to the 1990s. But in December 1995, there was an accident involving the Monju fast breeder reactor prototype in Tsuruga. A sodium leak at the plant caused a fire, but the scale of the accident was covered up. When the extent of the accident was revealed, the plant was shut down until 2010. But soon after it was restarted, yet another accident forced it to close again. Now the government says fast breeder reactors will be ready in 2050. But this date is a fantasy. Given the massive delays, even if it does come online, the Monju fast breeder reactor won’t be commercially viable. The cost of energy generated by Monju will be so high that no-one will want to buy it.’

Nuclear energy brings a warped sense of security to a country devoid of domestic sources of fossil fuels

Kono is concerned about the safety and security of Japan’s plutonium and spent fuel. ‘The Japanese government has bought 31 tonnes of plutonium to fuel fast breeder reactors. But as these reactors are not viable, the plutonium is in storage in Rokkasho, in northern Japan. The plutonium is guarded by a private security company. They are not allowed to carry guns, so they protected themselves and the plutonium with truncheons. I asked the government what would happen if terrorists showed up in Rokkasho with machine guns. I was told, “the guards would call the police!’’’

An anti-nuclear power demonstration in Shibuya, Japan, September 2011.

t-ohashi under a CC Licence

Kono cites a US academic report suggesting that Japan’s plutonium has not been spiked in the recommended fashion to render it useless to terrorists. Kono explains, ‘you spike the plutonium with dirty radiation so it can’t be taken away. The plutonium in Japan is supposed to be spiked, but the American academics who wrote the paper say the way our plutonium is spiked is easily reversible. The energy companies think they’ll need the plutonium in the future for fast breeder reactors.’

Japan’s plutonium stock is expanding as the government runs out of space to put spent fuel from its existing reactors. ‘Japan turns out about 1,000 tonnes of spent fuel a year. The capacity of Japan’s spent fuel pools will probably be reached within the next 7 to 15 years. But it takes 20 years to test new pool sites, so we are already out of time. Finding suitable sites in a mountainous country like Japan is difficult. The waste has to be buried 300-500 metres deep. If all the pools are full, it means you can’t take the spent fuel out of the reactors. If you can’t take out the spent fuel, you can’t put in new fuel, so the reactors will stop working. The energy companies are trying to get around this problem by reprocessing the spent fuel, a process that creates plutonium. It’s a vicious circle.’

National challenge

Kono’s solution to the many problems posed by nuclear energy is a phasing out of the industry in Japan. His plan involves halting construction of any new reactors and the decommissioning of existing reactors after 40 years. Kono first suggested this plan in 1997. ‘If we’d adopted my plan then, Japan would have been nuclear free by 2037,’ he says. ‘Now it’s 2011 and I am still saying the same thing. Forty years is enough time for us to increase our stock of renewables and to improve our energy efficiency,’ he reasons.

Kono would like to make achieving 100 per cent renewable energy by 2050 a national challenge. ‘Japan has the technology, talent and determination to met this goal,’ he says. But with the current government wedded to the status quo, Japan may have to wait for Kono Taro to achieve his ambition of becoming prime minister for there to be a change in Japan’s energy policy.