January 13, 2000

Accident Makes Japan Re-Examine A-Plants


TOKYO, Jan. 11 -- The director of Tokyo's huge electric power company made no mention of public opinion when he announced the postponement of plans to use a new plutonium fuel.

But the politician he was with when he made the announcement, Gov. Eisaku Sato of the Fukushima prefecture, the site of many nuclear plants, left no doubt that the public's newly raised suspicions about nuclear power were precisely what the postponement was all about.


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  • This was no time for an expansion of the nuclear program, Mr. Sato said, citing Japan's worst nuclear accident, in September, which killed one worker and exposed scores of people to radiation.

    "Now is the time for mourning," Mr. Sato said.

    The brief meeting between the industry chief and the governor illustrated how sharply the ground has begun to shift under Japan's electric utilities since workers set off the accidental chain reaction at Tokaimura, 70 miles north of Tokyo.

    The accident forced a partial evacuation of the town and set off a death watch for the irradiated workers. And, more than any event in a history full of serious mishaps, it rattled the ironclad coalition between industry and government that has long made Japan, a country with precious few domestic sources of energy, the world's most ambitious user of nuclear energy, providing one-third of its supplies.

    Strikingly, in a country known for its political quiescence, the sharp movement of public opinion against nuclear power has taken the form of a genuine groundswell, from subway straphangers horrified by stories about safety lapses and small civic groups that have started petition drives against the industry's expansion to local political candidates who are running for office on the issue.

    Public protest has not been common in Japanese society for well over a generation, having mostly died out since Japan attained the level of affluence of many Western countries, starting in the 1960's.

    But in recent years -- timidly at first, and then with growing speed -- localized movements have been springing up and asserting themselves more boldly, notably in the courts, to protect consumer interests or the environment. Since the Tokaimura accident, small citizens' groups, encouraged by the spreading awareness of the risks of nuclear energy, have sued regional power companies to prevent the introduction of the new plutonium fuel and petitioned local governments to block plant construction. A scandal involving the falsification of inspection data by the British maker of plutonium pellets has also strengthened resistance.

    The grassroots activists have put the nuclear industry on the defensive in ways that recall its decline in the United States and much of Europe after the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.

    In the clearest example of the impact of local mobilization, Mayor Takaaki Sasaguchi of Maki, in the Nigata prefecture, used his announcement of his re-election campaign today to declare his opposition to plans to build a new plant in his city.

    The industry, citing unflinching support from the national government and Japan's near total dependence on imported fuels, has pledged to stick to its plans for plutonium, which it describes as a step toward developing so-called fast-breeder technology.

    With fast-breeder reactors, whose development remains, perhaps, decades away, proponents say Japan will be able to produce more plutonium fuel than it consumes and achieve the holy grail of energy independence.

    In the meantime, industry officials say they merely need to be patient until public passions against nuclear energy die down, and they will proceed with plans to build many plutonium-burning plants.

    "There is only enough uranium in the world to last 72 years, and our country is not endowed with fossil fuels," the chairman of the Federation of Electric Power Companies, Hiroji Ota, said. "There are some other alternative power sources like solar and wind energy. But they all present technical problems. For all these reasons, MOX fuel is appropriate for Japan."

    MOX, or mixed oxide, fuel is the new plutonium-based fuel that the largest utilities had planned to start using late last year.

    In western Takahama, a former fishing village that is home to four nuclear power plants, the surprising face of the antinuclear activism is a citizens' group largely made up of homemakers and elderly people. Judging from the group's determination, the utilities may be underestimating the opposition.

    In October, the group started a drive that collected 2,170 signatures in a town of fewer than 9,000 inhabitants. The focus of the drive, like that of much of the recent opposition to nuclear power in Japan, is the new plutonium-based fuel.

    On a recent morning, the group delivered a letter to Mayor Riichi Imai, exquisitely polite in their protocol in a typically Japanese manner but absolutely firm in their message -- the town must refuse the new fuel.

    Lighting a cigarette, Mr. Imai refused to commit himself, saying he would explain his position soon before the regional assembly. That provoked a bitter laugh from Masae Sawayama, 90, the group's doyenne.

    "It occurred to me that our mayor might do like most politicians do and go tell a bunch of lies later," Ms. Sawayama said.

    The uphill struggle of the group becomes clear on entering City Hall, where large interactive displays show idyllic color images of the town's plants nestled in the hills by a rocky bay. Even public parks there are decorated with statues and monuments that commemorate mastery of the atom.

    Fishing has almost disappeared as a way of life. Nowadays, whether directly or indirectly, the regional utility, the Kansai Electric Power Company, employs the bulk of the population.

    The electric company has spared no effort to keep the townspeople on its side, subsidizing regular bus tours to its headquarters in Osaka, more than two hours away, for safety briefings. And residents say the cable television company runs annoyingly frequent public-service-style announcements on the benefits of nuclear power.

    Despite all that, the Tokaimura nuclear-fuel processing accident seems to have awakened the deep Japanese allergy to things nuclear, born after the United States dropped two atomic bombs on the country in 1945.

    And many have put their foot down and said no to the new program, seizing on studies by scientists in France, which uses MOX fuel in a limited way, and in the United States, which does not, that have shown that the fuels are more unstable during burning than the plain uranium fuels that they are intended to replace.

    In the end, Mayor Imai, who has been a strong supporter of nuclear power throughout his career, had no choice but to oppose the new fuel, at least for now. The shock from the British falsification scandal, coming on top of the Tokaimura accident, simply made it politically impossible to give his approval.

    Announcing his turnabout, Mr. Imai spoke bitterly, saying he felt betrayed by the industry experts who had campaigned for his approval of MOX. [On Jan. 12, the Kansai said that it would return a shipload of recycled plutonium fuel to British Nuclear Fuels, the company where inspection figures had been altered, Agence France-Presse reported.]

    Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company