While Earth Review - 22 Dec 94

Prof. Robert B. Laughlin
Department of Physics
Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305

(Copied 10 Sep 09)

It's the Plutonium Economy, Stupid

By David Chadwick and Alex Steffen
December 22, 1994

Meet the diplodocus of Cold War technologies: a plan to reprocess the nuclear waste from Japan's nearly fifty reactors, extract the plutonium, and use it to fire Fast Breeder Reactors.

Mayumi Oda is an internationally known artist with permanent collections in New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and more than a hundred one-woman shows.

She is also a Buddhist and a gentle, persistent, unwavering activist and a founder of Plutonium-Free Future and Rainbow Serpent (see p. 74). David Chadwick and Alex Steffen conducted this interview.

Alex Steffen: Why should people outside Japan be concerned about the prospect of plutonium-based reactors there?

Mayumi Oda: For two reasons. One is that this technology is crude and dangerous. But also, by stockpiling plutonium for nuclear energy production, Japan is keeping the ability to develop nuclear weapons, and that's promoting a nuclear arms race in Asia.

AS:What's the rationale being put forward in Japan to sell the plutonium economy?

MO: They call it "dream-energy," because we can become energy-independent.

AS: And that's considered Japan's economic weak point - its reliance on foreign oil?

MO: Exactly. And for nuclear power, we relied on imported uranium. We were very fearful of not having enough domestic energy sources, and they thought this would become a domestic energy source.

David Chadwick: Because the reactors make their own fuel.

MO: Yes. This was at the time that enriched uranium was very expensive. Then the world economy changed and the Cold War ended; there was a glut of uranium, so the price went down.... But they still think that this is the future for energy. Although now it looks like it'd take ninety years to breed and double the amount of plutonium - and the lifetime of a reactor is only thirty years. So it would take three reactors to make enough plutonium for a new one. And the decommissioning costs of those plants alone makes the whole thing not worth it.

AS: So why stick with it?

MO: Well, partly it's just the inertia in the government, but also there are some other reasons. You see, Japan was late in becoming an industrial country, and we still have this myth of technology- it's like a religion - and somehow hard, technological energy is better than energy coming from, say, a wind generator. That's the reason, I think, that they called [the prototype breeder reactor] Monju - Monju is the bodhisattva of wisdom.

DC: David Kubiak(*) says that there's a guaranteed 8 percent return on investment in energy - so there's a lot of profit to be made regardless of the cost-effectiveness to the nation.

MO: Yes, I think that is so. And no faction in the Diet [legislature] opposes it.

DC: I hear one problem is that Japan has strong local groups, but not good national groups.

MO: Very true. The reason is that we don't have money and resources to fund antinuclear work. We don't have the same legal concept of nonprofits, and we don't have the foundations to fund them. So what we're trying to do is make a national network.

AS: Do you think public opinion has changed since the international controversy around Monju and the shipments back from Europe?

MO: Oh, absolutely. The people didn't know anything about plutonium. They had no concept of the danger. They thought plutonium was great - you know, Pluto Boy [the nuclear industry's animated-cartoon "mascot"! - he's so cute: he can't be dangerous. But the shipment was a catalyst. There was enormous publicity outside Japan, and people saw this, and suddenly many people began to have questions.

The people who live near Wakasa Bay knew. They live with fifteen reactors within a thirty-five-mile radius. They study about it. But the other people would rather not know about it. Their attitude was, Why do you tell us all these uncomfortable things without telling us the solution? But I say: Listen, you have to work for the solution. We can be quite effective, even within the Japanese government, which is not so democratic.

A promising sign is that the nuclear industry relied on secrecy. But now that the communication system is opened up, it's very hard for them to keep a secret. They thought they could ship the plutonium without the world knowing it. But something like 400 press people showed up at Cherbourg when the ship left and Japanese TV news followed the trucks by helicopter to the plant.

DC: What about the link to nuclear weapons?

MO: The nuclear industry has built a myth that nuclear energy is very different from nuclear armaments. For example, last April, the Japanese Atomic Industry Forum held a conference in Hiroshima to promote nuclear power and advocate the abolishment of nuclear weapons. But the two are absolutely inseparable to my mind. They go together as part of a military-industrial complex.

DC: So what's being done?

MO: Generally people don't like nuclear power at all, even though the Japanese government has spent an enormous amount of money to promote the idea of how safe it is and what a bright future it offers. The Big Five newspapers just aren't reporting the actual story. Since it is national policy, it's really difficult to fight. There's a lot of pressure from government, a lot of censorship. We have to release the true information. Many groups are doing that, and they're getting linked up now - not just within Japan but internationally.

What we have to do, in addition to making the Japanese people aware of their government's crazy plutonium policies, is to get the word out on alternative energies and conservation, how it is cheap and ready to go. If we put real investment in this direction, we wouldn't need plutonium at all.

(*) David Kubiak is a contributing editor to Kyoto Journal, a longtime resident of Japan, a well-known activist and hellraiser whose mission is essentially subversive.