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With a Mighty Hand

The Japanese government’s influential and manipulative role in commercial nuclear power.

As the ongoing nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in the town of Ohkuma continues, and plant engineers and first responders endanger their lives to keep fuel rods and containment units cool, it is critical to consider how Japan’s commitment to nuclear power arose in the first place. It was no twist of fate or invisible market-hand that created 55 nuclear reactors in a seismically active country smaller than the state of California. Japanese bureaucrats and politicians have made it a priority to create an indigenous source of power that provides an alternative to imported oil and coal.

Despite this understandable rationale, it’s still surprising that the only nation in the world against which atomic weaponry has been used—twice, no less—has created the world’s most advanced commercial nuclear program. It is especially surprising when you consider that countries like France, Germany, and the United States have given up their attempts at fast breeder reactor technology because of concerns about proliferation and hazard. What has driven Japan to pursue its advanced program of nuclear power, and why have nuclear power plants ended up in incredibly vulnerable positions along Japan’s coasts?

While the United States has provided some support for nuclear power (for example, the Price-Anderson Act, which commits the federal government to absorbing some of the financial costs of potential nuclear accidents), as a source of alternative energy, it has never been fully embraced. This tradition of fence-sitting continues today, as seen in the Obama administration’s decision to end funding for the planned high-level radioactive waste repository at Yucca Mountain after two and a half decades of struggle over the site. Completion of the facility would have helped pro-nuclear groups convince skeptics that offsite waste disposal was possible. (The difficulty in securing permanent storage sites for nuclear waste is what leads U.S. and Japanese nuclear power plants to store their used fuel rods on site where they are most vulnerable.)

In contrast, the Japanese government has gone far beyond this approach. The origins of its enthusiasm can be traced to the postwar period. In 1955, at the urging of then-Diet Member and later Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, the Japanese government granted more than 5 billion yen—about $14 million in 1955 currency—to the Japan-based Agency for Industrial Science and Technology to begin research under the aegis of the “atoms for peace” banner raised by Dwight Eisenhower. In recent decades, the Japanese central government has supported the regional power utilities—including Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which runs Fukushima, and its counterparts—through research funding, risk amortization, and financial and logistical support. Unlike France, for example, which explicitly nationalized and then partly privatized their main nuclear-power-promoting utility company, Japan did not nationalize its energy industry, and some Japan experts have characterized the relationship between the state and utility firms as contentious. Yet both sides got what they wanted over the past 50 years: The government guided Japanese firms to produce nearly one-third of the nation’s power through nuclear plants, and the utilities obtained credible commitment against risk and financial backing for their expensive investments.

The Japanese people, as readers might imagine, have not been solid supporters of these government-initiated policies. Just as the government hoped to start its nuclear program in 1954, a highly publicized accident—in which crewmates onboard the poorly named Lucky Dragon Number 5 ship were exposed to radioactive fallout from an American hydrogen bomb test—resulted in the death of a radioman from radiation exposure. This spurred the creation of one of the world’s first national anti-nuclear movements (known as Gensuikyō) and a petition against nuclear weapons that obtained more than 20 million signatures. Attempts to build a number of plants around the country since the mid-1950s have resulted in petitions, public outcries, demonstrations, sit-ins, marches, and the occupation of town councils by anti-nuclear activists. While the anti-nuclear movement has not demonstrated the kind of violence shown by the anti-Narita Airport protests in the 1960s—during which a number of police officers and anti-airport farmers and students were killed in struggle over land expropriation—the success rate for the building of nuclear power plant has been roughly 50 percent. (That is, for every two attempts to construct a new plant, only one has gone forward.)

To minimize these fights over nuclear power in a society where people are deeply sympathetic to victims of atomic energy, the government has taken a two-pronged approach. First, it has worked tirelessly with the regional utilities to map out villages and towns that are the best locations for plants, according to the utilities’ needs. Bureaucrats within MITI (the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, which became METI, the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, as of 2001) provided funding for geographical and demographic surveys of potential grounds. Power companies have often targeted rural, depopulated coastal communities, where the population of local fishermen are declining. But, while legitimate criteria, such as distance from high-population areas, shock-resistant bedrock, and access to cooling water, have played a role in such plant site selections, the inability of the local population to coordinate anti-nuclear mobilization has often been the dominant factor.

Second, the government has created an extensive framework of policy instruments to manage and dampen anti-nuclear contestation. Where the Japanese authorities have been content to use standard, Weberian tools against anti-facility movements in other areas—such as dam construction and airport building—they have never resorted to land-expropriation in struggles over nuclear power plants, despite clear legal precedent for them to do so. Rather, the government has created a series of hard- and soft-control tools alongside deep incentives for communities willing to take on nuclear reactors. For example, students in Japanese middle schools may take science courses emphasizing the safety and necessity of nuclear power plants, with curricula written by government bureaucrats rather than teachers. Farmers and fishermen in these communities are regularly offered jobs at government-sponsored facilities to compensate for signing away sea rights in the surrounding fishing area. To further assuage the resistance that fishermen and farmers have shown in the past (because of concerns over “nuclear blight”—potential customers avoiding crops or fish because of fears of nuclear contamination), the government sponsors a yearly fair in Yokohama, in which only communities that host nuclear power plants can display and sell their goods. Finally, the government has created a monumental program called The Three Power Source Development Laws (Dengen Sanpō), which funnels roughly $20 million per year to acquiescent host communities. The money—which comes not from the politically vulnerable and annually vetted budget, but, instead, from an invisible tax on all electricity use across the nation—purchases roads, buildings, job re-training, medical facilities, and good will. In these far-flung rural communities that are, by and large, dying through depopulation and aging, these funds can provide vital support.

Japan’s choices—to sway public opinion through subsidies, social control tools, and manipulation—have left little room for public debate on the issue of nuclear power. The local residents—whom we see bearing the heaviest burden of the ongoing crisis in Fukushima and who have been exposed to radiation by past accidents at the Monju FBR, the fatal accident at Tokaimura, and elsewhere—are seen not as partners, but as targets for policy tools. A plan-rational approach, as Chalmers Johnson might have called it, has placed reactors in areas vulnerable to the threat of tsunami and pushed rural communities into dependence on the economic side payments which accompany these facilities. Now, as Japan struggles to avert catastrophe, it is the time for a real discussion between civil society and state over the future of nuclear power.

Daniel P. Aldrich is assistant professor of political science at Purdue University and author of the 2010 book SITE FIGHTS: Divisive Facilities and Civil Society in Japan and the West (Cornell University Press).

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