Junichiro Koizumi’s huge popularity as prime minister stemmed from views that he was a straight talker unafraid to carry out his policies, even if they created potentially dangerous political enemies.
Despite defections from the Liberal Democratic Party and the rise of “rebels” against him, Koizumi pushed through postal privatization and led the LDP to a sweeping victory in the 2005 Lower House election.
Now, the retired politician has returned to the spotlight by railing against nuclear power and urging Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to move Japan away from its reliance on atomic energy.
Some political sources say Koizumi is simply expressing his true feelings about nuclear power. But others point to a political motive behind this anti-nuclear stance. They say Koizumi may be trying to protect, albeit indirectly, the Abe administration and even the party he once famously vowed to “destroy.”
Abe, who was groomed to be prime minister during the days of the Koizumi administration, appears to be listening.
Koizumi, who was prime minister from 2001 to 2006, stunned an audience on Sept. 24 during a forum in Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills commercial complex commemorating the 50th anniversary of the publication of the business magazine President.
“Since retiring (from politics), I have had more opportunities recently to speak with business leaders rather than Diet members. During such discussions, I often hear comments that Japan cannot grow without any nuclear power plants or that calling for zero nuclear power plants is irresponsible,” Koizumi, 71, said in a speech. “However, I studied what experts have said until now about nuclear energy being safe, clean and inexpensive, and I harbored doubts.
“I wonder if human beings can really control nuclear energy. I have now become an advocate calling for zero nuclear plants and urge politicians to make that decision as quickly as possible.”
A major catalyst for Koizumi’s no-nuclear power stance was a visit to Finland in August, a trip he decided to make after watching a TV documentary immediately after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami triggered the Fukushima nuclear crisis.
The TV program featured various issues related to the final repository in Finland for spent nuclear fuel that would be durable for 100,000 years, the first such facility in the world.
Koizumi began doubting the argument that nuclear energy was safe and inexpensive after learning about the very long time period.
The main objective of his Finland trip was to inspect the Onkalo spent fuel repository, a facility designed to completely seal off highly radioactive waste by digging 400 meters deep into the foundation.
The radioactive materials would become harmless over 100,000 years.
However, it is unclear if the facility can actually withstand such a long passage of time. There is also the question of how to inform people in the distant future about the dangers that lie within the facility.
After listening to the explanation given by experts at the facility site, Koizumi said he became more convinced that Japan should move away from nuclear power generation.
“One cannot fathom a time 100,000 years in the future. Can such a facility ever be built in Japan? I thought it would be impossible,” Koizumi said in his Sept. 24 forum speech. “The first reason why I thought it would be better to have zero nuclear plants is because there is no final repository in Japan. Some people may say it is irresponsible to call for zero nuclear plants, but I think it is even more irresponsible not to have a disposal site for the waste or even any prospect of constructing such a facility.”
The former prime minister also said that Japan, unlike Finland, is frequently hit by earthquakes and tsunami. He said the dangers of natural disasters in Japan fueled his concerns about the nation’s dependence on nuclear energy.
“The Japanese have never knuckled under to natural disasters but have always overcome them to further develop the nation. We are now at a major turning point for creating a recyclable society through energy sources based on natural resources. Opportunity lies in a pinch. That is how we should be looking at the situation,” he said.
A source in the political world who is close to Koizumi said his anti-nuclear stance is not something new.
“During private conversations, Koizumi has for a long time called for a radical move toward no nuclear plants. The Onkalo visit strengthened that conviction,” the source said. “The engineers from nuclear plant manufacturers who accompanied him on the trip initially thought they could convince him with their views. However, after returning to Japan, Koizumi said, ‘I strongly argued for the need to move away from nuclear energy.’”
Although the Finland visit may have been important, Koizumi had indeed made comments about moving away from nuclear energy from shortly after the March 2011 disaster.
In a speech in May 2011, Koizumi called for reducing the nation’s dependence on nuclear energy, saying, “It was wrong for Japan to have spoken up after placing its trust in the safety of nuclear plants.”
Last December, Koizumi, speaking on behalf of an LDP candidate before the Lower House election, said, “Efforts should be made to reduce the number of nuclear plants to zero as much as possible.”
But it was a column that appeared in the Aug. 26 edition of the Mainichi Shimbun that sent shock waves through the political world.
In responding to a senior staff writer, Koizumi said: “If I were to return to being an active politician, I would not have the confidence to convince undecided Diet members about the necessity of nuclear energy. After making various observations, I feel I would be able to convince lawmakers to move in the direction of zero nuclear plants.”
Koizumi continued: “Unless the decision is made now to have zero nuclear plants, it will become more difficult to move toward zero nuclear plants in the future. All the opposition parties now favor zero nuclear plants. This could be done as long as the prime minister made the decision.”
Although four years have passed since he retired from politics, Koizumi maintains high popularity and his comments still have influence.
The source close to Koizumi said: “His comments against nuclear energy are likely due to dissatisfaction at the Abe administration. I believe he wants to strongly lodge a protest against the sharp turn by the administration toward resuming operations at nuclear plants.”
Those in the Abe administration are trying to determine Koizumi’s motives.
“After the Mainichi Shimbun column appeared, we were paying attention to whether others would follow in his footsteps, including his son, Shinjiro, a Lower House member,” a source close to the Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office said. “He does, after all, have an outstanding sense for how the political world operates.”
There are signs that Abe was the one who responded most aggressively to the comments made by Koizumi.
The Abe administration has been pushing for the restarts of nuclear reactors that were shut down after the meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. The prime minister also declared the Fukushima nuclear accident was “under control” at a meeting of the International Olympic Committee in Buenos Aires last month.
But after the IOC awarded Tokyo the 2020 Summer Games, Abe told a news conference on Sept. 7: “We will lower the ratio of nuclear energy. Over the course of about three years, we will make every effort to accelerate the spread of renewable energy sources and promote energy conservation.”
Abe did refer to renewable energy and energy conservation as key issues in his policy address at the Diet in February. But his statements at the news conference about resuming operations at nuclear plants were substantially toned down from his earlier remarks.
An LDP source said: “Koizumi is making those comments while being very aware of their effects. However, rather than trip up Abe, I believe he is only trying to restrain the Abe administration that is moving in the direction (of resuming nuclear plant operations).
“The message Koizumi is sending is that moving too strongly in that direction could hurt the administration, even though it may have high support ratings now. The comments by Koizumi can also serve as a coastal levee of sorts for Abe who faces pressure from lawmakers with close ties to the electric power industry. I believe Abe understands what is happening.”
In any event, Koizumi is not backing away from his no-nukes stance.
“If the government and LDP now came out with a policy of zero nuclear plants, the nation could come together in the creation of a recyclable society unseen in the world,” he said in a speech in Nagoya on Oct. 1. “A large majority of the population now understands that nuclear energy is the most expensive form of power generation.”
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