TOKYO -- Japan's flagging antinuclear movement received an unexpected new recruit this week when one of the nation's most popular figures, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, made a very public about-face from his previous embrace of atomic power.
In a speech to business executives in Nagoya on Tuesday, Mr. Koizumi surprised many in the solidly pro-nuclear audience by saying that Japan should rid itself of its atomic plants and switch to renewable energy sources like solar power. His remarks were reported in the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper on Wednesday.
As a pro-growth prime minister from 2001 to 2006, Mr. Koizumi had backed the business lobby by calling for Japan to become "a nation built on nuclear power," calling it cheap and clean, and sided with the Tokyo Electric Power Company in deciding to end tax-supported subsidies for solar panels. But he said in Tuesday's speech that he had reversed his stance after the nuclear accident at Tepco's Fukushima complex two and a half years ago, which left at least 83,000 people homeless and forced a multibillion-dollar cleanup that has been riddled with mistakes and accidents.
"There is nothing more costly than nuclear power," Mr. Koizumi, 71, was quoted as saying. "Japan should achieve zero nuclear plants and aim for a more sustainable society."
Mr. Koizumi spoke on the same day that his son and political successor, Shinjiro Koizumi, 32, was named to a top cabinet post overseeing the recovery of northeastern Japan from the triple disaster that struck in March 2011, when a devastating earthquake and tsunami set off meltdowns at three Fukushima reactors.
Tuesday's appeal was a rare return to public view by the retired prime minister, who rose to power with his uncanny ability to read the public zeitgeist and inspire voters with calls for radical change. Since retiring from politics four years ago, Mr. Koizumi has remained largely out of sight, refusing interviews or most requests to appear on television.
In the last month, local media reported that Mr. Koizumi had begun saying in private that he now opposed nuclear power, but Tuesday's speech, before a crowd of 2,500, was one of his first public statements.
It is unclear how big a lift, if any, the proclamation will give Japan's antinuclear movement, which appeared to crest last year when tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered weekly outside the prime minister's residence. While public opinion polls still show that more than half of Japanese oppose restarting the nation's idled nuclear plants, the protests have dwindled to a few dozen die-hards. Opposition to nuclear power also failed to become an election issue last December, when voters handed a landslide victory to the pro-nuclear Liberal Democratic Party.
On Tuesday, Mr. Koizumi said that antinuclear sentiment remained a potentially potent political force beneath Japan's deceptively placid surface. He called on the Liberal Democrats and the current prime minister, Shinzo Abe, Mr. Koizumi's former political protégé, to tap that power in motivating the nation to overcome the Fukushima disaster.
"If the Liberal Democratic Party were to adopt a policy of no nukes, the public mood would rise in an instant," Mr. Koizumi was quoted as saying. "The Japanese are masters at turning a pinch into a new chance."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.