Japan’s tale of two stockpiles

by Peter Wynn Kirby

Special To The Japan Times

Mount Fuji stands as a powerful eco-symbol in Japan, invoked frequently to describe elements of Japanese nature and culture. According to Japanese writers and others, Mount Fuji’s towering summit-cone and elegantly balanced slopes convey the remote majesty of nature, the essence of purity, a trove of immutable values, a model of aesthetic perfection, and a store of Japanese reserve, to name but a few.

Yet in illustrating how contemporary Japanese society actually works, the sacred peak faces competition from two other mountainlike entities. Lurking out of the public eye are two problematic stockpiles — of plutonium and whale meat — whose mountainous bulk not only looms over Japanese environmental policy and international relations but speaks to the problems that led to the 3/11 disasters.

Plutonium 239 — perhaps the planet’s most dangerous substance — constitutes an environmental nightmare, but still hovers as an unrequited dream to some Japanese policymakers who hold out hope that the substance can provide limitless energy production and energy independence in a time of finite uranium stocks and expensive fossil fuel imports.

To this end, resource-poor Japan has amassed a huge stockpile of weapons-usable plutonium: more than 45 tons, or enough for roughly 5,000 nuclear warheads.

Though not lacking in enthusiasm, Japan’s attempts over decades to create a plutonium cycle have proven expensive, misguided, poorly managed and even fatal. Faced with urgent reconstruction obligations in Tohoku, a cash-strapped Japanese government still continues to subsidize a flawed plutonium-energy infrastructure and the storing of this immensely toxic and dangerous substance. With a half-life of over 24,000 years, this budget item could bleed on for a very, very long time, as plutonium is so difficult to utilize safely.

Also troubling is the eerie stockpile of frozen whale meat in Japan, held in a peculiar limbo by skewed policy and declining appetite for whale. Vested Japanese interests defend whaling as a core element of Japanese tradition and the nation’s controversial annual “scientific” whale hunt brings back whale meat that can be sold commercially. But in a case of costly political overreach, the gap between high-flown rhetoric and concrete demand for whale meat has led to an expensive storage problem: about 5,000 tons of frozen whale products that must be kept below minus 18 degrees Celsius for long periods in industrial warehouses.

The costs aren’t only financial. Japan’s extreme stance on whaling, an example of almost Gallic cultural exceptionalism, means that the Japanese government often finds itself on the back foot when discussing environmental problems with international partners, not to mention cultivating a reputation for treaty-manipulation and doublespeak.

Not only is the whale stockpile the bitter fruit of failed policy decisions, like plutonium, but it is also toxic. Whale and dolphin meat is often high in methylmercury, notorious scourge of Minamata. Though mercury is particularly dangerous for children, whaling interests have tried to offload whale meat at a heavy discount for school lunches to reduce the stockpile and attempt to inculcate demand among young people. For example, a broad survey found that 18 percent of Japanese elementary and junior high schools had served whale during fiscal 2009-10, bought at one-third the price.

Such ideologically blindered disregard for citizen welfare is highly reminiscent of Japan’s nuclear industry, of course. Well before the Fukushima nuclear crisis exposed the arrogance, incompetence and venality of Japan’s nuclear clique, the nation’s plutonium program gave pause.

In theory, a technologically adept and determined nation like Japan could create so-called fast-breeder reactors to produce energy, always yielding more plutonium to fuel power plants in the future. Yet Japan’s prototype fast-breeder reactor, dubbed Monju after the bodhisattva representing transcendent wisdom, has performed in a rather more mundane and error-prone fashion. Completed in 1994, the plant tumbled offline in 1995 after a serious sodium leak ignited a major fire and caused extensive damage. A semigovernmental agency’s bungled coverup brought infamy upon the plant, its operators and regulators, and the nuclear industry generally.

Fitful attempts to make Monju truly operational in recent years have largely failed. Yet along with sporadic reprocessing efforts elsewhere, the total spending on Japan’s ill-conceived plutonium program has reached trillions of yen that could have helped foment a green revolution if instead invested wisely in renewable energy development, for example.

Despite all this, the plutonium juggernaut still lurches on. Just this April — only 13 months after the record Tohoku earthquake triggered Japan’s Chernobyl — Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. restarted construction on a plant that will produce mixed-oxide fuel (a mix of plutonium and uranium, known as MOX) commercially. While MOX fuel provides a means of (very slowly) using up nuclear waste in existing reactors, it involves great risk. For example, it was the presence of plutonium in MOX-rods in spent-fuel pools at the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant that greatly increased the danger of the crisis.

Such a slow-motion shipwreck of an energy policy quietly plays out against the more widely publicized nuclear difficulties in Japan. Indeed, the awkward plutonium store is a telling result of the policy ineptitude that helped create the post-tsunami nuclear catastrophe.

After more than a year of revelations regarding the cozy, back-scratching ties between members of Japan’s so-called “nuclear village,” the parallels between Japan’s nuclear program and its pro-whaling apparatus are striking. As Jun Morikawa explains in his book “Whaling in Japan: Power, Politics, and Diplomacy,” Japan’s whaling lobby seems as much to do with protecting ministry budgetary outlays and creating amakudari post-retirement sinecures as with the safeguarding of Japanese identity against Western cultural imperialism. Furthermore, stealth efforts to cultivate demand for whale in recent years bear an uncanny resemblance to the aggressive and cynical propaganda campaigns of Japan’s nuclear proponents.

At root, both stockpiles are about resources, a long-standing policy fixation of Japanese leaders. While Japan’s plutonium glut is at least partly about energy self-sufficiency (and deterrence), the nation’s whale meat store remains entangled in domestic concerns over food self-sufficiency and fishing rights. For example, some scientists (“Science,” April 26, 2007, page 534) suggest that Japan’s “scientific” whaling research findings are actually intended to guide future large-scale whale harvest. Moreover, some Japanese fear that concessions on whaling might bring restrictions on Japan’s far more important global fisheries trade.

In a larger sense, though, these two suggestive stockpiles bring up the important question of whether Japan can enact bureaucratic and cultural change to turn the country around at a critical juncture.

Dr. Peter Wynn Kirby is an anthropologist at the University of Oxford and a specialist in nuclear and environmental risk in Japan. His latest book is “Troubled Natures: Waste, Environment, Japan” (2011). (www.uhpress.hawaii.edu/p-9780824834289.aspx)