At the same time, a comic-strip character who debuted in 1952 was also becoming popular. Astro Boy, who is known in Japan as Atom, was a nuclear-powered android with a sister named Uran, the local diminutive for uranium. (The creator, Osamu Tezuka, is often described as the godfather of Japanese animation.) In the opening credits for the popular 1963 TV cartoon inspired by Astro Boy, a young, wide-eyed boy literally pops out of a mushroom cloud. He flexes his muscles and shoots into the air, passing through a stormy sky, waving to a commercial airliner, swooshing over dolphins in the ocean, and flying alongside a fast-moving train, all while cheerful music plays and people look on in awe. Astro Boy has remained popular in Japan since the 1950s, appearing in animated television shows, video games, and a feature film adaptation of the comic.
Astro Boy was the cultural expression of a broader shift: Across Japan, attitudes about nuclear energy were changing. In 1954, Japan budgeted 230 million yen for nuclear energy; the first commercial nuclear-power plant opened in the Ibaraki prefecture in 1966. Other reactors soon followed. By 1973, five reactors were up and running, but 72 percent of Japan’s energy still came from oil. Then the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries imposed a worldwide oil embargo and prices soared, pushing the island nation even further toward nuclear power as a means to energy independence. Before the Fukushima meltdown, Japan was down to getting just 63 percent of its energy from fossil fuels, with 30 percent coming from nuclear power. (By contrast, the United States gets 19 percent of its power from nukes.)
Traveling around Japan to get a sense of how ordinary folks felt about nuclear power, I met Tomie Ishikawa, 90, who told me an extraordinary story. In 1985, the government approved the construction of a uranium-enrichment and spent-fuel-reprocessing facility in Rokkasho, her village, boosting a poor backwater with government subsidies and jobs. So in 1995, Ishikawa and two friends started a women’s reading club—not to discuss the latest novels, but to educate its members about the benefits and hazards of nuclear energy. “We studied what is bad and what is good,” recalls Haruko Nihonyanagi, 88, the chairwoman of the 25-person group who has lived in Rokkasho since 1945.
Nihonyanagi remembers the tense debate among the villagers when the nuclear facilities first opened. “At that time, there was such a big moment, a big dispute,” she recalls. “We didn’t know what the correct idea was.… We also needed to study: What is nuclear power? What is radiation?” Now Nihonyanagi and her friends are fluent policy wonks on the issue. They visited the devastated Fukushima area after the accident and talked to the panicked people there. “I kind of understand how they feel, because they haven’t studied [nuclear power], so they don’t have the knowledge,” Nihonyanagi says. She will stand up for nuclear power because Japan still needs it. “If … this new renewable energy can support all the Japanese electricity supplies, that would be fine, but at this moment, the renewable energy can support only a few percent of the whole electric consumption.”
Ishikawa prefers the ecological case. “I don’t think we can shut down the nuclear power, especially when we consider global warming,” she says. Becoming more dependent on fossil fuels would make the country that birthed the world’s first climate pact, the Kyoto Protocol, scale back its emissions-reduction commitments. “Now this tiny [uranium] pellet can supply the electricity for half of a year.… Of course, this kind of very convenient and very precious things comes together with a bit of risk.”
CYCLE OF DEPENDENCE
The Rokkasho plant, which stretches for miles, covers the nuclear power cycle from start to finish—from enrichment to reprocessing of spent fuel for reuse. The visitor center, a tall green gherkin-esque building, makes the reprocessing facility seem like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, where women dressed like flight attendants smile as they cheerfully walk visitors through interactive demonstrations of how plutonium is extracted from spent fuel and converted into a plutonium-uranium mixture to be used for next-generation reactors.
But the rest of the complex and its village home show just how conjoined Japan’s security and economy are with nuclear power. Even if the country wanted to step away from nuclear energy, it just can’t.
Beyond the avant-garde structure, the Rokkasho facility looks like a military base. Access is typically afforded only to officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency. Here lie massive stockpiles of separated plutonium; Japan has the largest reserve of any non-nuclear-weapons state—enough to make hundreds or even thousands of nuclear bombs. If Tokyo moved to phase out nuclear energy without ending reprocessing or permanently burying all of its spent fuel, it would not only create a target for terrorists but also violate the country’s international nonproliferation pledges. The fuel would have nowhere to go. (Tokyo is no closer to having a Yucca Mountain-type nuclear repository than Washington is.)