Less than a decade after World War II ended in August 1945, Japan was moving forward with plans to harness nuclear power for its growing electricity needs. Despite the horrors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a well-coordinated propaganda campaign that played on people’s hopes for a better life — and their fear of losing it all for want of electricity — would lead Japan, one of the world’s most quake-prone countries, to build over 50 nuclear power plants. How this happened is a tale of secret wartime efforts by Japanese nuclear scientists, a right-wing nationalist who would dominate Japanese politics for nearly half a century, a media tycoon who was a CIA spy, a flamboyant pilot with a talent for self-promotion, Japan’s most popular — and corrupt — postwar Prime Minister, and the collective hubris of what became known as the nuclear power village.
In September 1945, aboard the U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay, World War II came to an end as Japan signed the a formal instrument of surrender, turning the country over to a U.S.-led Occupation that set out to make the country, if not quite in America’s image, then at least familiar enough to avoid another catastrophic war.
The American New Dealers who arrived to administer a defeated nation brought with them the mixture of optimism and naivete Graham Greene would popularize a few years later in “The Quiet American.”. But while the good intentions of the Occupiers made the covers of Time and LIFE, there was another Occupation, one full of secrets that, if brought to light, would destroy the carefully-scripted public story of Japan’s transition to a peaceful democracy.
And perhaps no secret gave America more pause than the reports that Japan had been a lot farther along in its development of an atomic weapon than anybody in Washington D.C. had realized. Just weeks after the surrender ceremony, it was discovered that nuclear scientists in Kyoto, Tokyo, and in Japanese-occupied Korea had been working on getting the bomb. Occupation officials even found cyclotrons in several laboratories, which were then allegedly destroyed and dumped into Tokyo Bay in November 1945.
As the 1940s turned into the 1950s and the Cold War began, many Japanese who had been arrested as war criminals in 1945 found themselves out of jail and being feted by Washington as allies against communism by 1950. Washington’s need for an Asian ally against the now-nuclear armed Soviet Union and Communist China intersected with Japan’s long-held dream of an energy supply that was safe, stable, and secure. The moment for nuclear power in Japan had arrived.