The groundwork goes back decades. After WWII the US looked to shed the reputation gained after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The tactic brought about the Atoms for Peace program. The plan was to divert attention away from nuclear weaponry and war towards nuclear power and other uses that could be seen as “peaceful” uses of the technology.
Opposition to nuclear weapons had grown in Japan after with war with groups pushing for the abolition of nuclear weapons and loudly speaking out. The solution hatched by the US was to sell Japan on nuclear power. The head of the Atomic Energy Commission described it this way. “Now, while the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain so vivid, construction of such a power plant in a country like Japan would be a dramatic and Christian gesture which could lift all of us far above the recollection of the carnage of those cities.“ The Washington Post sold the concept thusly: “a way to “divert the mind of man from his present obsession with the armaments race.” “Many Americans are now aware … that the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan was not necessary. … How better to make a contribution to amends than by offering Japan the means for the peaceful utilization of atomic energy. How better, indeed, to dispel the impression in Asia that the United States regards Orientals merely as nuclear cannon fodder!”” The US Information Service and CIA began a campaign to convince the Japanese people to accept nuclear power. Partnering with the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper the US produced a traveling tour and other efforts to sell this idea to the Japanese people. The tour touted nuclear power as the cure all for just about every need, from insect control to power and food preservation. Between 1955 and 1958 data began to show the public was effectively being convinced of the US propaganda campaign that nuclear power was safe and the answer to a wide variety of needs.
By the late 1950’s Japan had their first nuclear reactor built by the British and plans to have the US design and build nuclear power plants in Japan. One of the first would be General Electric’s “turnkey” nuclear reactor project at Fukushima Daiichi. Into the 1960’s and 1970’s Japan rapidly expanded their nuclear power plant fleet with the help of General Electric and Westinghouse from the US. Hitachi had joined into the nuclear power market in Japan by the 1970’s. The company provided the Mark 1 BWR reactor for Fukushima Daiichi Unit 4 in 1978, one year before the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster in the US. Toshiba had also been involved in nuclear power since at least the 1970’s, providing the Mark 1 BWR reactor for Fukushima Daiichi Unit 3. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries built the Mihama nuclear power plant in Japan in 1970. They eventually went on to establish a US branch of their nuclear business. After Three Mile Island nuclear power in the US began to decline as Japan’s sector continued to grow. By 2006 GE had merged with Hitachi. The same year Toshiba bought Westinghouse and holds a majority share today.
As the US companies contracted and the Japanese companies grew or remained stable these mergers brought about a great shift in corporate and political power. Japan now held the cards for the US nuclear power sector.
In the early 1970’s the US began a fast breeder reactor project with the hopes that it would provide ongoing energy without the need for more and more new uranium based fuel as is used in regular nuclear power reactors. The project proved expensive and problematic. By 1983 the US government cancelled the project. It was considered too expensive to ever be practical. The US nuclear industry knew they would never gain approval from Congress for another fast breeder reactor project.
Construction on the Monju fast breeder reactor began in 1986 in Japan. The US saw Monju as the best of both worlds, they could gain technical knowledge without shouldering the total costs of a new fast breeder reactor, avoid the political hurdles and any potential environmental risk to the US. Numerous documents show the US involvement and partial funding of Monju like this 1991 memorandum of work. This 2013 US DOE presentation shows the level of involvement and dependence the US has on Japan’s Monju facility for their own research.
Japan has had plans for their own nuclear fuel reprocessing plant at Rokkasho since the 1970’s. It is still not operational today and a companion MOX fuel plant remains an incompleted hole in the ground. With fuel reprocessing comes the proliferation risk as plutonium is separated out of spent nuclear fuel. Japan has done some of their own fuel reprocessing at a now defunct facility in Tokai Japan. At the same time the US’s reprocessing plant at Savannah River closed in 1983. Rokkasho stands in the same manner as Monju as a foreign facility the US could use when the political hurdles in the US prevented them from continuing or expanding the same work in the US. On one hand the US has complained that Rokkasho is a proliferation risk, on the other they have demanded Japan not abandon the programs of Monju and Rokkasho.
The US put forth a considerable effort to make the Noda administration in Japan reverse course on their plan to phase out nuclear power altogether. Proliferation risk was the main reason cited, complaining if Japan did not continue the plan to reprocess fuel, use MOX fuel and operate Monju it would create a proliferation risk. Yet ending their nuclear program would stop the production of spent fuel and the plutonium contained within.
This quote from a Nikkei hints at the larger problem for the US.
“It is because the Japanese nuclear policy is closely linked also to the nuclear non-proliferation and environmental policies aimed at preventing the global warming under the Obama administration.”
After 2007 the US nuclear power program became dependent on the Japanese nuclear industry. Japanese companies now have majority ownership of the nuclear companies that build and maintain the US nuclear power plant fleet. If Japan’s nuclear industry were to fold the US would lack anyone to build or maintain their reactors. For the US, Japan’s nuclear power program and companies couldn’t be allowed to go away.
As both the US and Japan have built more nuclear reactors than are needed to meet current power demands in the respective countries, Japan began looking to expand their nuclear business to other countries.
Japan’s nuclear industry is heavily entrenched in Japanese society. The “nuclear village” wields both financial and political power in Japan. They had no intention of going quietly into the night after the Fukushima disaster. Organized big business lobbies like the Keidanren pressured the government sector to take actions to shield and benefit the nuclear industry. When the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) regained power in Japan the new PM, Shinzo Abe presented a key part of his “Abenomics” plan that involved exporting nuclear technology to shore up waning nuclear industry profits. A 2008 US-India nuclear agreement by the Bush Administration paved the way. All three of Japan’s big nuclear companies have high dollar export deals in the works in India.
Earlier in 2015 the US established a nuclear liability agreement that would give any foreign nuclear vendor shielding from liability in the event of a nuclear disaster in India. This would block the public from seeking any sort of damages from these foreign companies if the nuclear plants they plan to build have failures including a catastrophic meltdown. This US agreement applies to any foreign vendor including the Japanese nuclear companies the US depends on to maintain their reactors. Anyone familiar with the Bhopal disaster could see why this agreement would be a bad idea for the people living near these plants.
PM Abe will be visiting India starting December 11th with the hopes of finalizing a nuclear agreement with India. This deal is not extremely popular in India. The nuclear industry there has issues with oversight, safety and transparency. Current nuclear projects have been constructed at great expense to local populations who have lost land, farming and fishing. Protests against these nuclear plants have been met with brutal responses from the government.
Japan’s goal of the nuclear exports is one of corporate welfare, to generate income for their lagging nuclear sector. These projects bring no social or strategic benefits for Japan or the US. The projects and agreements continue to be pushed even though most in India and Japan do not support the expansion of nuclear power. Recent polling showed India as the more supportive country with 28% strongly supporting nuclear power. Japan only had a 5% strongly supporting segment. PM Abe is in India this week attempting to finalize this nuclear agreement. Protests have been ongoing in India, Japan and in the US against this pending agreement.
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