Member of the House of Representatives Seiki Soramoto earned his PhD in nuclear engineering and worked in the nuclear technology field before entering the political world. As a Democratic Party of Japan National Diet member, he helped respond to the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. Today he is part of the Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party). Toshio Motoya spoke with Soramoto about why he aspired to become a Diet member, as well as his thoughts on economic security.
(M) Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today. You have quite a unique career. Can you start by telling us about yourself?
(S) Thank you for having me. I was born on Kurahashijima, an island in the Seto Inland Sea. It’s next to Etajima, where the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy was located. Back then it was called Ondo Town, but it’s since been incorporated into Kure City. Kurahashijima is just south of Kure Port, and it’s fairly easy to get to the mainland via two bridges, the Ondo Ohashi and Daini Ondo Ohashi. The population has exceeded 30,000 people in the past, but today it’s just around 11,000. I lived on the island until I was 18. While taking the bus every day to my high school in Kure, we passed by the Kure Naval Arsenal site where the battleship Yamato was built. Back then it was the shipyard of Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries (IHI).
(M) So you saw that huge dock every day.
(S) It was next to a Maritime Self-Defense Force submarine base. I gazed at submarines and destroyers on my way to school.
(M) I’ve been invited to ride on a Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) submarine. They served us Kaigun Curry under the sea. But it wasn’t as interesting as I had imagined, because you can’t see anything outside while submerged.
(S) I’ve gotten to ride on a JSDF fighter, but I haven’t yet boarded a submarine.
(M) You went to Tokyo for college, is that correct?
(S) Yes, I went to Waseda University for my undergraduate studies and then to the University of Tokyo for graduate school. I earned my doctoral degree in 1992 and began working at Toshiba in 1993, where I helped build nuclear power plants until 2001.
(M) After that, you were elected to the National Diet. What inspired you to run?
(S) When I was three or four years old, I told an elderly female relative that I wanted to get a PhD in rocket engineering, become prime minister, and win a Nobel Prize in the future. Those words had some kind of mysterious power, and I kept them in mind for a long time. I got interested in the energy field in high school, and ended up choosing nuclear engineering rather than rockets.
(M) That’s a big dream for a child! If you look at the yearbook from my sixth year of elementary school, it says my future goal was to become president of the global federation. That was when Japan joined the United Nations in 1956. I imagined the world would eventually become a single federation. That didn’t happen, nor did I become its president, but I am the top leader of APA Group. You can’t achieve something if you don’t dream it first. I think it’s important for people to have lofty goals and try to accomplish them. You voiced your honest ambition to get your PhD and become prime minister, then worked to make it happen.
(S) Yes, remembering those words from when I was small, the first thing I did was to earn my doctoral degree. I become a politician afterwards. I decided to get involved in national politics by around the age of 35 if at all possible. I was chosen as a candidate from the general public to run from Ichiro Ozawa’s Liberal Party in 1998, and I helped with elections while working at Toshiba for some time after. I also learned a lot at the Gakudojuku academy run by the Ozaki Yukio Memorial Foundation. After the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and Liberal Party merged in 2003, I ran for the first time from the Hiroshima 4th district as a DPJ candidate. I’ve run in a total of seven national elections. I lost in 2003 and 2005 to Hidenao Nakagawa from the Liberal Democratic Party, even though it was a proportionally represented constituency. I won for the first time when I beat him by 5,000 votes in a single-member constituency in 2009, when a change of government took place.
(M) I imagine that seven elections provided a lot of training.
(S) Yes, it was extremely difficult but worthwhile.
(M) Did you come to enjoy giving speeches?
(S) I’ve gotten used to it, and I get excited before speaking in public.
(M) What did you talk about?
(S) There are many topics I want to discuss, like education, the pension system, medical care, and caregiving. Since I ran in Hiroshima, I conveyed a strong message about abolishing nuclear weapons. Some of my relatives were directly killed by the atomic bomb, and some lived long lives as hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors). My grandmother was not directly affected on Kurahashijima, which is far from ground zero, but she went to the City of Hiroshima right after the bombing to search for her nephew. After looking everywhere, she found him seriously wounded, and he died soon after. Many people were unaccounted for, and I’ve heard some survivors suffered severe burns, too.
(M) As the only country that has experienced a nuclear bomb attack, it makes sense that Japanese people know how much damage they can cause and hope they are never used anywhere. Since the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, now we have hydrogen bombs with more destructive power. They could spread across the world and bring about the downfall of humanity. We must build an international community that will never use atomic or hydrogen bombs, by all costs.
(S) I agree entirely. You’d be surprised how many people from Hiroshima end up in the nuclear engineering field. The bombs that caused great human suffering, and peaceful uses of nuclear power, are two sides of the same coin. I think they want to consider how to peacefully utilize nuclear power so no atomic bombs are used. My vision is working to achieve solid national security without nuclear weapons, and good energy policy by peacefully using nuclear power.
(M) I understand your stance well. Originally, only permanent members of the UN Security Council were supposed to have nuclear weapons, but today many other countries possess them. Ensuring that these are never used is the most important job for politicians.
(S) Yes. As the only nation that has suffered an atomic bomb attack, Japan should lead the world in creating a roadmap for abolishing nuclear weapons. I’ve questioned Prime Minister Fumio Kishida about this multiple times in the House of Representatives Budget Committee. Because humans have developed nuclear weapons, it will be difficult to give them up in the future. To eliminate their threat, our only option is the peaceful use of nuclear power – how to create energy from atomic nuclei.
(M) Do you think nuclear power will move from fission to fusion?
(S) That was the topic of my university research. I did research on nuclear engineering at grad school, including nuclear fission and fusion. I used a particle accelerator to cause a fusion reaction with tritium and deuterium, which are isotopes of hydrogen.
(M) With nuclear fission and fusion, I assume the mass decreases when energy is produced according to E=mc2, the equation for mass-energy equivalence. There was a book called Splendid Nuclear Power in my elementary school library. I read it multiple times, and I’ve believed in the possibility of peacefully using nuclear power ever since. In my opinion, the important point is how to create energy while controlling it in the safest manner possible, whether the process is fission or fusion.
(S) You know a lot about many different topics. The Kishida government declared it would work on peaceful use by making smaller power plants and new, safe facilities. I think Japan will employ more nuclear power going forward.
(M) When the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station accident occurred, the evacuation areas were determined based on the yearly dose standard of 20 millisieverts. I feel like that was too strict.
(S) That’s also part of my field of expertise. I was a Diet member at the time of the accident, and I helped with the response. Coincidentally, my birthday is March 11, the day of the earthquake. I was called to the Prime Minister’s Official Residence on March 15. The people there included Prime Minister Naoto Kan; the chief cabinet secretary; deputy chief cabinet secretaries; special advisors to the prime minister; and Haruki Madarame, chairman of the Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC). The Official Residence and NSC were non-functional. The minister of land, infrastructure and transport was Akihiro Ohata, formerly of Hitachi’s Nuclear Power Division. He approached me because he was anxious that something terrible could happen unless we formed an advising organization to support the Official Residence and NSC. I reached out to Shunsuke Kondo, a University of Tokyo emeritus professor who was chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission. The members included University of Tokyo Professor Toshiso Kosako, special advisor to the cabinet; Special Advisor to the Prime Minister Goshi Hosono; and Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Tetsuro Fukuyama. We began considering worst-case scenarios on March 16, even the possibility of evacuating people from Tokyo. The biggest threat was the spent fuel pool in Unit 4. If the water in that or another unit’s pool leaked out and ran dry, the exposed fuel could heat up the empty pool and melt, releasing highly radioactive material into the air. Fortuitously, we were able to avoid that scenario. The investigation group collected its results as a report entitled “Outline of Unexpected Scenarios at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station,” which Kondo presented to Kan on March 25.
(M) Is that so?
(S) You lose perspective if you constantly remain in the Official Residence or Tokyo Electric Power Company’s head office. We had to get outside for a comprehensive, overall viewpoint. I think our worst-case scenario report was useful. There are still restricted areas, planned evacuation areas, and difficult-to-return areas near Fukushima Daiichi, but more restrictions are being lifted so people can return home. Setting the 20-millisievert yearly dose was quite challenging. The biggest issue was the yearly radiation dose standard for school buildings, playgrounds, and the like. The national government tried to establish a 20-millisievert criterion, just like for the planned evacuation areas. We were highly opposed to this. Our goal was a yearly dose of one millisievert, based on the background radiation level. I think 20 millisieverts is much too high for children to be exposed to anywhere, even in times of emergency. Five millisieverts sounds reasonable to me, but we should strive for a yearly dose of one millisievert in the future.
(M) However, I’ve heard people live regular lives in places across the world with high background radiation. Some even say that more background radiation provides better health and longer lives.
(S) That’s the concept of radiation hormesis. Different levels of radiation have different effects on the human body. Humans emit radiation, as well.
(M) We can’t simply say that radiation is always dangerous. I think we need to consider how to co-exist with it. There seem to be different ways of thinking about safety standards.
(S) There is an international radiation standard. However, we should have had more clearly delineated regular and emergency standards at the time of the disaster.
(M) I feel like the DPJ government’s standard was overly strict. They evacuated all people from a fairly large area…
(S) It’s not easy to decontaminate forests. We expect it will take 50 years or longer for radiation levels to decrease. I authored a book with Shouma Tanaka, a man in his 20s, which will be published by Ronsosha this May. It’s called A Member of Generation Z and a Nuclear PhD: Striving for Unicorns and the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons. I wrote that my dream was to develop a device that can remove radioactivity, and then win the Nobel Prize. I wanted to make something like the “Cosmo Cleaner” from the Space Battleship Yamato series.
(M) Has anyone died due to radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi accident?
(S) No one has been killed by direct radiation from the accident, but some have been approved to receive workers’ compensation for leukemia and other diseases caused by working at the plant right after the accident. A man who died from lung cancer in 2018 was also approved for workers’ compensation. Other impacts are also possible. For instance, thyroid disorders might mainly affect children. These are caused when a person inhales radioactive gas plumes, and radioactive Iodine-131 builds up in their thyroid.
(M) I’m sure it wasn’t easy to cope with that accident, of a type no one has ever experienced before. The Kishida government decided to release water treated through the Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS) into the ocean. That seems like progress to me.
(S) Yes, it does. Nuclear plants across the world regularly release treated water containing lithium that is diluted so it won’t harm the environment. However, lithium has the same chemical properties as hydrogen, although its mass is different. It cannot be removed using the ALPS.
(M) The government has to pay reparations, mainly to fishermen.
(S) A fund was created in the FY2022 Revised Budget to provide 50 billion yen of compensation, although not just for releasing water into the ocean. Moreover, we should sufficiently publicize to citizens that this will have few scientific impacts. I also think we must be careful so there are no actual effects on the natural environment.
(M) What is the situation at the reactor today?
(S) The accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station occurred when the earthquake cut off the external power supply, and the tsunami shut down the emergency power generators used to cool the reactors. Meltdowns/melt-throughs occurred at the cores. Fuel and concrete melted and solidified, creating debris at the bottoms of the reactors. We are struggling because this debris is very solid and difficult to remove.
(M) Could you abandon the plan to remove it, and leave the reactors sealed up?
(S) The idea of enclosing it in a “stone coffin” has been proposed…
(M) It seems more logical to enclose the entire area in stone and ban people from going there, rather than spending huge amounts of money to remove the debris. Perhaps this sounds a bit harsh, but this accident shouldn’t have been a total surprise. I think we should have had some awareness of this possibility back when the plant was built.
(S) That might be true. However, restrictions are gradually being lifted, and people are going back to nearby areas designated as difficult-to-return zones. There are some difficulties involved in returning to a place you’ve been away from for so long.
(M) That can’t be easy after leaving and building new lives elsewhere. Atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and a nuclear accident occurred in Fukushima. I can understand why people are sensitive about nuclear power.
(S) That can lead to harmful rumors and misinformation, which must be dealt with carefully. For instance, all bags of rice grown in Fukushima were previously tested, making it the safest rice in Japan.
(M) That was a good way to stop harmful rumors.
(S) That’s right. As a politician, I am currently tackling the theme of security related to food, energy, and semiconductors. How can we ensure Japan’s security? Thinking back, Elpida Memory’s 2012 bankruptcy was an opportunity for Japan to reorganize its semiconductor industry. Fabless semiconductor companies, who design semiconductors and have them built elsewhere, should have worked together with companies that have their own factories, called “foundries.” The Taiwanese company TSMC, today one of the world’s largest semiconductor makers, developed its technological power as a foundry hired to manufacture products by fabless companies around the world. Today it is one of the top companies across the globe. Elpida Memory’s circumstances might be totally different if it had been acquired by Toshiba, and if the industry were reorganized into fabless companies and foundries, for instance. Rapidus, a new semiconductor manufacturer with support from eight Japanese companies, was established last year. It’s planning to start a foundry business for making state-of-the-art two-nanometer quantum semiconductors. Japan must have cutting-edge technologies to establish its place in the world.
(M) I agree.
(S) Japan used to be top in the lithium battery and solar panel fields, but we’ve been overtaken by South Korea and China.
(M) Is that because companies moved their factories to places with cheaper labor?
(S) They abandoned their manufacturing divisions, which allowed for the rise of TSMC in the semiconductor industry. Rapidus announced it will open a factory in the City of Chitose, Hokkaido. I believe companies should domestically produce cutting-edge products with high added value, and sell them across the world.
(M) I often hear talk that Japanese technicians are being lured overseas with higher wages.
(S) As one facet of economic security, it is important to train people, have sufficient human resources, and acquire patents that make it difficult to transfer technologies to other countries. We should also draft legislation and new policies for this purpose.
(M) Japan’s only path forward is to become a technology- and tourism-oriented nation. At the end of the article, I always ask for a “word for the youth.”
(S) Like I wrote in A Member of Generation Z and a Nuclear PhD, I’m the type of person who follows through with what I say. I believe words have the power to accelerate the things I dream about. I want young people to have a solid way of thinking and use the power of their words to achieve their goals.
(M) I hope you will talk about your new book at the Shoheijuku academy. Thank you for joining me today.
(S) Thank you.
Born on March 11, 1964 in Ondo Town, Hiroshima Prefecture. Graduated from Waseda University’s Faculty of Science and Engineering in 1987 and from the University of Tokyo School of Engineering (Department of Nuclear Engineering Master’s Program) in 1989, then completed the Doctoral Program and earned his Doctor of Engineering degree in 1992. Began working at Toshiba Corporation’s Energy Business Division in 1993. Ran for his third House of Representative election in 2009, and was elected as an officially recognized Democratic Party of Japan candidate. Ran as a Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party) candidate in the 2021 House of Representatives election, and won for the second time. His published works include The Fight Against Contaminated Water (Chikumashobo) and 20 Millisieverts (Ronsosha).