Japan's nuclear energy industry is a powerful complex. Harutoshi Funabashi explains in the essay "Why the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster is a Man-Made Calamity" published in The International Journal of Japanese Sociology (2012 vol 21) that Japan’s electrical companies have regional monopolies and are backed by the institutional power of Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI). Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), which is located under METI authority, both regulated and promoted nuclear power until a new “independent” agency was created in 2012.
Adding to the electrical companies’ power are networks of influence cultivated by industry grants and personal honorariums. Cultivated networks of influential actors help shape public opinion at national and regional levels. They have been active over the years in pushing municipalities to accept nuclear facilities. Funabashi argues that the utilities tendency to prioritize profit over safety coupled with the unwillingness of Japan’s regulatory system to plan for catastrophic conditions were instrumental in creating the conditions of possibility for the Fukushima disaster. Furthermore, Funabashi contends that a myth of safety was strategically propagandized by METI and other institutional powers.
In a separate analysis conducted prior to the Fukushima disaster, Valentine and Sovacool describe how institutional capture of the media occurs through mainstream journalists’ press membership in “reporter’s clubs.” Membership in these clubs is implicitly conditional upon reporters’ willingness to temper public criticism, particularly in the arean of nuclear power, as they explain here that “the combination of the LDP’s majority lock on parliament and this unique form of media control served to keep the dangers of nuclear power development from the public eye.”[i] Japan’s forays into breeder reactors and reprocessing proceeded unchecked by public scrutiny in the context of this nuclear complex.
Reactors that reprocess nuclear fuel and/or that operate at higher temperatures using plutonium infused fuel have historically posed special engineering challenges. Japan struggled for years to develop a nuclear energy program that reduced dependency upon uranium providers by exploiting the entire nuclear fuel cycle.[ii] The Japanese tried to close the fuel cycle by extracting plutonium from uranium based spent fuel; the plutonium would then be used as fuel in “breeder reactors.” In 1967, the Japanese Atomic Energy Commission’s (JAEC) first “Long Term Plan” promoted fast breeder reactors as the mainstream for Japan’s nuclear power future.[iii] Japan pushed the breeder reactor program for decades despite setbacks.
Japan has invested $12 billion in its experimental “Monju” sodium-cooled, fast-breeder reactor in Fukui Prefecture.[v] Designed to operate on plutonium from reprocessed, spent reactor fuel, Monju has been beset with problems since its construction began in 1986. The reactor began operation in 1994, but was soon shut down because of a major fire caused by a sodium leak in 1995.[vi] The operator attempted to hide the incident by having workers their report and through the creation of a strategically truncated video of the accident.[vii] Operations resumed in 2010, but another malfunction occurred.
One of the reactors expected to be brought online over the next year is the Rokkasho reprocessing plant. This plant was linked to national security when Japan’s Atomic Energy Basic Law was amended in June 2012. The Mainichi describes in an article titled how the LDP maneuvered to save Rokkasho from closure by adding an amendment that nuclear reprocessing was necessary for national security (Atomic energy law's sly alteration is abuse of legislative process http://mainichi.jp/english/english/perspectives/news/20120626p2a00m0na004000c.html)
In December of 2012 two professors of geomorphology at Tokyo University warned that a 100 kilometer fault running directly under the Rokkasho reprocessing plant was likely active.[i] Assistant Professor Yasutaka Ikeda and Professor Mitsuhisa Watanabe warned that the fault could produce an 8-magnitude quake under the reactor.
The push for breeder reactors and the capacity to "reprocess" nuclear fuel pose significant safety risks for citizens' health and environmental well-being. Yet the nuclear complex in Japan, like the ones in the US and UK, push their agendas forward with the benign oversight of captured government regulatory agencies and in the absence of critical media investigation.
[i] Kyoko Hasegawa Quake risk at Japan atomic recycling plant: experts. Pys.Org (2012, December 19) .: http://phys.org/news/2012-12-quake-japan-atomic-recycling-experts.html#jCp
[i] Scott V. Valentine and Benjamin K. Sovacool. The Socio-political Economy of Nuclear Power Development in Japan and South Korea. Energy Politics 38 (2010) 7971-7979, p. 7974.
[ii] Joseph Trento United States Circumvented Laws to Help Japan Accumulate Tons of Plutonium. National Security News Service (2012, April 9). http://www.dcbureau.org/201204097128/national-security-news-service/united-states-circumvented-laws-to-help-japan-accumulate-tons-of-plutonium.html.
[iii] Tatsujiro Suzuki. Japan’s Plutonium Breeder Reactor and its Fuel Cycle.In Thomas B. Cochran, Harold A. Feiveson, Walt Patterson, Gennadi Pshakin, M.V. Ramana, Mycle Schneider, Tatsujiro Suzuki, Frank von Hippel Fast Breeder Reactor Programs: History and Status: A research report of the International Panel on Fissile Materials (53-61). February 2010. http://fissilematerials.org/library/rr08.pdf
[iv] William Sweet.Japan’s Nuclear Program Stresses Breeders, Plutonium, and Safeguards. Physics Today 41(1), 71-74).
[v] John Daly. Another Fukushima Causality: Japan’s Fast-Breeder Reactor Program. Oil Price.Com (2012, February 27 ) http://oilprice.com/alternative-energy/nuclear-power/another-fukushima-casualty-japans-fast-breeder-reactor-program.html
[vi] Suzuki, 54.
[vii] Monju costs far surpass usual nukes: Trouble-prone reactor has rung up far higher tab than initially planned. Japan Times (2012, July 4), http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/nn20120704f1.html.