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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.]