Former PM Koizumi's anti-nuclear case makes sense

In mid-August, former Liberal Democratic Party leader and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, 71, visited Germany -- which has decided to give up nuclear power -- and Finland -- which continues to promote the technology. His impressions could be summed up thusly: I went and I understood abandoning nuclear power; I saw with my own eyes, and I am convinced.

Koizumi was accompanied by four executives from the nuclear power technology divisions of Toshiba, Hitachi, and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. During the trip, one of these executives whispered in the former prime minister's ear, "You have a lot of influence. Do you think you could come around to our way of thinking? Will you be our friend?"

Koizumi looked at the executive and replied, "In my own experience of most big issues, if three out of 10 people agree with you, two will be against you, and the other five will say, 'whichever is fine with me.'

"If I was back in the Diet in my old job, trying to persuade undecided members on the nuclear power issue, I don't think I'd have it in me to convince them Japan 'needs nuclear power.' But after seeing what I've seen on this trip, I think I could persuade those members to move toward zero nuclear power. I'm more confident of that all the time."

The little exchange appeared casual, off-hand even. And yet it was just the latest step in a long dance between pro-nuclear Japanese industry and former PM Koizumi -- who has made several comments on denuclearizing Japan since March 2011 -- as each side probes the other's position.

The genesis of this odd-couple voyage was an April symposium attended by Koizumi and the presidents and CEOs of Japan Business Federation member companies. The captains of Japanese industry rose one after another to call for the continuation of nuclear power generation. And then Koizumi stood and roared, "That's no good!" The room sank immediately into dejected silence.

Right after his single-phrase contribution to the symposium, Koizumi hit on the idea of visiting Onkalo, the massive subterranean spent nuclear fuel repository now under construction in Finland. He also put Germany on his itinerary, a country focusing on producing renewable energy for domestic consumption. When Koizumi queried Japanese companies in the nuclear technology business about participating, they responded enthusiastically, and the Koizumi inspection team was born.

It's been said that nuclear power is like "an apartment without a toilet." All nations with nuclear power would like to build a final repository for their nuclear waste, i.e. a toilet, but no one wants such a dangerous facility anywhere near them, and there's no way to talk them around. Onkalo is so far the only purpose-built final disposal facility in the world. It will take its first delivery of spent fuel in 2020.

The thinking behind Onkalo is that the spent fuel will be locked deep underground for the 100,000 years or so needed for it to lose its toxicity. No structure built by human hands has ever lasted that long. It's hard to imagine where our species will be in 100 years let alone 100,000, so is it really permissible to bury such dangerous material with just the knowledge and technology we have today?

I had the opportunity to ask Koizumi what he thought, what he'd seen, upon his return to Japan.

"A hundred thousand years," he began. "They say they'll re-evaluate things in 300 years, but everyone alive now will be dead by then. In Japan, there's no place to dump the waste in the first place. We have no choice but to get rid of nuclear power."

I mentioned that there are many voices calling the immediate abandonment of nuclear power irrational, and that they have the upper hand.

"No, it's just the reverse," Koizumi told me. "If no plan to get to zero nuclear power is produced now, eliminating atomic power will become all the more difficult in the future. All the opposition parties agree that Japan should abandon nuclear power. If the prime minister decided to do it, he could do it. Once that decision was made, wise people would make their contributions" to ensure it happened.

"The most difficult job in battle belongs to the rear guard," Koizumi continued. "To withdraw" is the hardest part. "Look at the war in the Showa era (the second Sino-Japanese war and World War II). Japan should have withdrawn from Manchuria, but we couldn't. The business world says that the 'economy won't grow if we lose nuclear power," but that's just not true. People used to say that 'Manchuria is Japan's lifeline,' but we lost Manchuria and Japan grew anyway, didn't it?

"You know the expression, 'Necessity is the mother of invention,' don't you? Defeat in war, the oil shock, the Great East Japan Earthquake; difficult times are an opportunity. Japan should make itself into a recycling-based society that makes a resource out of nature itself."

I've always been anti-nuclear power, and so I listened to the former PM with delight. Unfortunately, though these words come from the mouth of Koizumi, the pro-nuclear camp will likely refuse to hear them. And so I'd like the undecided, the remaining five out of 10, to know what he has to say. (By Takao Yamada, Expert Senior Writer)

August 26, 2013(Mainichi Japan)

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