Big money pull a million stringsBig money hold the prize
Big money weave a mighty web
Big money draw the flies
— Rush, “The Big Money”
Last month’s announcement that the Monju experimental fast-breeder reactor in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, would likely be decommissioned was an acknowledgement of what had been obvious for decades. Namely, that Monju was too fraught with technical and political problems to have ever stood a chance of success.
For Kansai, the decision brought a feeling of relief among those concerned about a plutonium-producing plant in their backyard, but a feeling of “now what?” among everyone else. No political leader in Osaka, Kyoto, Nara or Kobe either wistfully eulogized or passionately protested the recommendation that Monju, which has cost more than ¥1 trillion, be scrapped. In Fukui, however, it was a different story.
For more than four decades, Fukui’s leaders have finessed the art of extracting (extorting?) as much money from Tokyo as possible in exchange for cooperation in continuing not only Monju but also 13 commercial nuclear reactors, a concentration of nuclear power plants said to be the densest in the world.
Massive amounts of tax money were funneled into the prefecture by the Liberal Democratic Party for all sorts of uses. Some were noble (construction of modern train stations, schools, hospitals and social welfare facilities). Some were corrupt (propaganda museums that played down the risks of nuclear power, all expense-paid “study” tours to Europe’s nuclear reactor towns for local residents that included sightseeing trips to Paris).
Nobody really knows how much money, directly and indirectly, went to Fukui and Tsuruga over the decades for “bearing the burden of Monju.” Unofficial guesses put the figure in the billions of yen. But what has residents in Kansai, and elsewhere, concerned is how much it will cost them, in the form of future government payoffs to Fukui, to be rid of Monju.
The prefecture certainly has friends in high places looking out for its interests. Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, a favorite of Shinzo Abe, represents Fukui’s 1st district. That’s the one without nuclear power plants, but she’s very close to those in Fukui who support them. Then there’s Tsuyoshi Takagi, who served as reconstruction minister. He’s from Tsuruga and represents Fukui’s 2nd district in the Lower House, an area that hosts those 13 commercial nuclear reactors. In short, Fukui has powerful allies who will work hard to ensure all manner of new funding flows to the prefecture and to Tsuruga over the coming decades.
Making matters better for Fukui but worse for taxpayers elsewhere, three commercial reactors will be decommissioned over the next few decades. You can be sure Fukui politicians from the governor on down are drawing up a long wish-list of pork barrel projects they will demand the central government, as well operator Kansai Electric Power Co., fork out in exchange for consenting to each reactor’s decommissioning plans — plans that might include disposing high-level radioactive waste generated by decommissioning in Fukui, over the objections of residents.
In short, decommissioning means big money for Fukui in the years ahead in the form of subsidies, jobs and service-industry income. And not just at Monju, where the basic cost was recently estimated at ¥540 billion.
With predictions it might cost ¥8 trillion to scrap the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, and perhaps a dozen commercial reactors probably heading for the scrap heap in the next decade, Japan has entered the “age of nuclear power decommissioning.”
There’s big money involved that will draw a swarm of flies, especially in towns and prefectures hosting the power plants. Taxpayers elsewhere, therefore, will need to be especially vigilant and handy with the flyswatters and insect repellent.
View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.