The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Japan’s leader, Junichiro Koizumi backed nuclear power. Now he’s a major foe.

Bags of nuclear waste are stored in the Japanese town of Naraha on Jan. 25. Reconstruction and cleanup of the areas affected by the March 11, 2011, tsunami and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident continue almost 8 years later. (Shiho Fukada for The Washington Post)

TOKYO — With his shock of white hair, his love for Elvis and his reputation as a maverick, Junichiro Koizumi was a burst of color in the sober, dark-suited world of Japanese politics more than a decade ago.

Today, Koizumi has come out of retirement to join a battle against the entrenched business and political interests he had tangled with in the past. A man known for his simple catchphrases has a new one to impart: “Zero nuclear power.” 

Eight years after the March 11, 2011, nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, Koizumi is back in the spotlight, trying to harness the public’s growing distrust of nuclear power and rid his country of an industry he once promoted as prime minister from 2001 to 2006.

His reversal on nuclear power reflects a wider reconsideration across Japan after the Fukushima disaster, which was triggered by an earthquake and tsunami.

A February 2018 poll by Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper found 61 percent of respondents against the nation’s nuclear power plants being restarted and 27 percent in support.

“Momentum is building,” Koizumi said in an interview. “I am getting a strong response. It’s only a matter of time.”

Embarrassed by his own role in advocating nuclear power, Koizumi says he has learned from his mistakes. But Japan’s establishment remains firmly behind nuclear plants, even as other nuclear critics often point out the dangers posed by Japan’s quakes and tsunamis, a word Japan gave the world.

“The disaster brought a severe crisis, but we can turn crisis into opportunity. We can manage ourselves with renewables,” he said. “Take Germany, for example. They saw the disaster in Japan and changed their energy policy. But of all countries, Japan has not changed. It’s truly incomprehensible.”

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Japan shut down all of its 54 reactors after the Fukushima catastrophe. Explosions in three reactors sent a cloud of radioactive dust across vast swaths of northeastern Japan and forced 165,000 people to flee their homes. 

But since Shinzo Abe was reelected prime minister in 2012, his government has been on a mission to get the nuclear power industry back on its feet. 

Nine reactors have already been restarted, six more applications to restart have been approved by a new, nominally independent Nuclear Regulation Authority, and the government wants nuclear power to contribute 20 percent to 22 percent of the nation’s energy by 2030.

Japan’s nuclear agency and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) say safety standards have been significantly tightened. The aim, said Daisuke Matsuno, director of METI’s nuclear energy policy planning division, is to make the industry “the world’s safest.”

“At the same time, it is dangerous to think you can achieve zero risk,” said Matsuno. “Overconfidence is dangerous.”

Indeed, overconfidence was Japan’s downfall. 

A damning report by an independent parliamentary panel in 2012 concluded that the Fukushima Daiichi disaster was “profoundly man-made,” caused by a disregard of the risks of earthquakes by an industry determined to preserve the illusion that nuclear power was absolutely safe.

Instead of supervising the nuclear power industry, METI colluded with it, the report said. It said the risks of nuclear power were downplayed in a culture of “reflexive obedience” and a “reluctance to question authority.”

A million tons of contaminated water must be stored, possibly for years, at Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant. (Video: Reuters)

METI and Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), the operator of the Fukushima plant, should have been profoundly embarrassed by those conclusions, Koizumi said, but instead appear unfazed.

“I am stunned, I am stunned,” he said, waving his arms in animation.

“I think they are crazy. Everyone at METI and TEPCO are all smart. They all did well in school. Still they don’t get it, they don’t get how this is costing so much money and is so risky,” he added.

So why are elected politicians so determined to press ahead? The answer, Koizumi asserted, lies in those same vested interests he has spent the best part of his career fighting.

Building nuclear power plants is hugely expensive and involves large swaths of industry, which in turn supports the ruling party, Koizumi said. Labor unions eyeing jobs from nuclear power support the opposition parties, most of whom had backed nuclear power in the past.

“Nuclear power is behind both sides,” he said. 

Since the disaster of 2011, the opposition has swung into the antinuclear camp. But Koizumi has found his own Liberal Democratic Party — also the party of Abe — harder to sway. 

So much money has also been invested in the industry that there is a reluctance to write investments off. But Koizumi says nuclear power is neither economic nor necessary. The country, he noted, survived without it for two years without a single blackout.

Koizumi’s journey to the “zero nuclear” camp began on the day the Fukushima nuclear plant ruptured. In retirement, he has devoured books on the subject, and has come to the belief that the world had next to no provisions to safely store nuclear waste.

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Public pressure and litigation in Japan have delayed or prevented several plants from restarting, but critics say risks from earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are still being systematically downplayed. 

One concern is it will take so long to overcome safety concerns and public opposition that the government will never meet its 2030 target for nuclear power. Although Japan is also investing in renewable energy, the shortfall is likely to be made up with fossil fuels, experts say. That would be a quick fix, but a huge setback for Japan’s promises under the Paris climate accord.

Koizumi says he has told Abe to embrace renewable energy much more forcefully.

“If Japan went in that direction, the world would look at us differently, with more respect,” he said. “We can become a model for others to follow.”

Other voices of criticism struggle to be heard.

Shigeaki Koga, an energy industry expert, says his career was sidelined at METI after he expressed doubts about the safety of nuclear power, until he was ultimately forced to resign. He has since emerged as a leading public critic of nuclear power.

Kunihiko Shimazaki, one of Japan’s leading seismologists, warned of the risks of earthquakes and tsunamis along the country’s northeast coast for years before the disaster struck, but his reports were generally ignored or buried. After March 2011, he served for two years with the nuclear regulator, and spoke out forcefully, but his term was not renewed.

For now, Koizumi is leading the charge and trying to appeal directly to the Japanese people, as he did when he called for a snap election as prime minister in 2005 to push through postal privatization.

As someone who believes he was deceived by the nuclear power lobby during his time as prime minister, he sees it as his duty.

“Just as Confucius said, for someone not to correct themselves after making a mistake — that is a true mistake.”

Akiko Kashiwagi contributed to this report.

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