Readers offer some advice to the new prime minister on the contentious issue of nuclear power in post-3/11 Japan.
Gambling with future generations
Dear Prime Minister Shinzo Abe,
Although I have taught classes related to Japan at the university level for years, I am embarrassed to admit that I was unable to answer a recent question posed by one of my students. Given your well-known interest in traditional Japanese cultural values, not to mention your ability to influence the future direction of this country, I write hoping you might be able to assist me.
By way of background, my classes on Japanese culture always emphasize the role that senzo sūhai (ancestor veneration) plays in Japanese society. I find this topic of great interest to Western students, perhaps because their knowledge of their own ancestors is typically limited to two or three generations of their family.
It was in this context that a student recently asked me: “Why do the Japanese seem so indifferent to the fate of those who come after them, i.e., their descendants, when, on the other hand, they show such gratitude to those who came before them?
Needless to say, I was surprised by this question and responded, “What makes you think the Japanese aren’t interested in the welfare of their descendants?”
“Well,” the student continued, “if the Japanese were so interested in their welfare, why would they allow their government to endanger their descendants for 100,000-plus years by bequeathing them thousands of tons of highly radioactive and toxic spent fuel?”
I responded, “The Monju fast-breeder nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture is designed to dispose of radioactive waste.”
“I know, but I recently read a newspaper article that said this plant is still in testing mode after 30-plus years in the making. And didn’t former National Policy Minister Seiji Maehara tell a Diet panel in November of last year: ‘We have been aware of the two crucial problems. One is the fuel cycle: The fast-breeder (reactor) is not ready. The other is the back-end (waste disposal) issue. They have never been resolved.’
“Before leaving the U.S.,” the student said, “I began to research this issue and discovered that the U.S., France and Germany have all abandoned plans to build fast-breeder reactors due to cost and safety concerns. What makes you believe Japan will succeed when all these other countries have failed? And anyway, shouldn’t these critical issues be solved before, not after more nuclear waste is created by restarting now idle reactors, let alone constructing new ones?”
“You have a good point,” I replied, “but even if a fast-breeder reactor ultimately proves unfeasible, the Japanese could still bury the spent fuel in a safe, underground repository somewhere, couldn’t they?”
“Perhaps, but the question is where such a repository would be located? The U.S. recently abandoned plans to store such waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada because they discovered the area was subject to earthquakes, not to mention the danger of water infiltration that could lead to radiological contamination of the ground water.
“Doesn’t Buddhism, an important religion in Japan, teach that everything in the universe is in a state of flux? Given this, why should any of us think there is a location somewhere that can be guaranteed safe for the next 10, 50 let alone 100,000-plus years?”
“Well . . .” I started to reply but then I stopped. At that point, Prime Minister, I must honestly admit that I didn’t know how to respond. And my consternation only increased when the student added: “In today’s Japanese language class we learned the word shison to designate one’s descendants. Why is it that only ancestors are venerated or respected in this country? Don’t shison, representing the very future of the Japanese people, deserve to be respected as much as those who came before? If so, isn’t shison sūhai, i.e., descendant veneration, just as important, if not more important, than ancestor veneration?”
Prime Minister, I recognize that, as a foreigner, my knowledge of Japanese culture is still incomplete. Let me therefore ask how you would have responded to this student?
Additionally, given that no other country in the world knows how to safely store nuclear waste for thousands of years, will you nevertheless endanger countless generations of Japanese through continued reliance on nuclear power?
BRIAN A. VICTORIA
Don’t pander to radiation phobia
Dear Prime Minister Shinzo Abe,
For the sake of Japan, and for the sake of the world, I implore you to consider the issue of nuclear power in the spirit of moderation and reason, and resist efforts by the antinuclear lobby and elements of the media to promote fear and panic.
The most false and distressing of the efforts is the attempt to conflate the peaceful use of nuclear power with the terrible atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. The events are incomparable, as is clearly showed by the human cost. On the one hand, over 100,000 people were killed by the Hiroshima blast. On the other, nobody has been proven killed or injured by the Fukushima nuclear accident itself.
Yet an extraordinary example of this propaganda was published in The Japan Times’ Hotline to Nagata-cho column on Oct. 9 (“Let Inoue’s antinuclear Jizo, forged in Hiroshima, guide Japan’s future” by Jason Bartashius). The article, incredibly, decried the reopening of schools within the former evacuation zone, protesting at the temerity of people wanting to return to their homes, reform their communities and start the rebuilding of their lives. The author, who didn’t deign to offer anything as prosaic as radiation measurements, implied that the children going to the schools would suffer the same fate as the children of Hiroshima 68 years ago!
It is well-known that low dose radiation is of zero or negligible risk to humans, yet the unwarranted fear of radiation is destroying the future of Japan.
A clear example is the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s decision to expand the evacuation zone around nuclear power plants to 30 km, massively compounding unnecessary fear and sending municipalities nationwide into a frenzy of useless planning. Was it not enough that 573 people died because of unnecessary and panicked evacuation after the Fukushima accident, including dozens of elderly patients simply abandoned in hospital, some to die a degrading death?
Not only that, but the NRA is now proposing to expand the definition of an active earthquake fault line to one that has moved within the last 400,000 years, thus putting into doubt the restarting of nuclear plants all over the country. Is it really possible that humans could be so foolish as to curtail a vital economic activity at a given site because of the hypothetical risk of an earthquake every 400,000 years?
The linking of the use of nuclear weapons with 2011’s accident at Fukushima is specious. It is also unethical. Yet ironically, there is a useful lesson to be learned in this attempt at conflation by the antinuclear lobby. It reveals the real source of public antinuclear sentiment: an unconscious equivalence of nuclear power with the destructive terror of nuclear weapons.
Never mind that when considered rationally, nuclear power is the safest large-scale source of energy available to humanity. Never mind that nuclear energy is incomparably healthier than energy produced by fossil fuels, or that it is vastly cheaper and more reliable than renewable energy, or that it produces close to zero carbon dioxide emissions. Never mind those things, because at some deep level of the public’s unconscious, nuclear power equals terrible danger.
Mr. Prime Minister, the government has the right and indeed the duty to make decisions based on science and reason, and not be swayed by the irrational. The fear of radiation is a phobia that defies reason, and rather than pander to this fear, Japan should recognize the advantages of nuclear power and continue its steady expansion.
The benefits are undeniable and the bulk of the criticism it attracts is simply ill-founded. To paraphrase the words of American liberals, reality has a nuclear power bias.
Take medical advice into account
Dear Prime Minister Shinzo Abe,
In addition to the fear of thyroid cancer, for years to come many Fukushima parents will be plagued with the worry that their children may develop bone tumors or leukemia from exposure to strontium-90 (Sr90). A beta-radiating isotope difficult to detect with gamma cameras or Geiger counters, Sr90 is another invisible enemy possibly present in the environment due to the nuclear crisis at the No. 1 plant.
Like calcium, ingested Sr90 accumulates in bones. Also, it accumulates in teeth from fetal growth to the age of five. Dr. Martin Walter, a Swiss physician and member of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), is planning to measure the Sr90 levels in Fukushima children’s baby teeth.
Baby teeth collected this past year will be incinerated and dissolved in chemicals to ascertain how much Sr90 was in the environment before the nuclear disaster began. Teeth collected in the coming years will offer a means to judge how much Sr90 was emitted from the No. 1 plant when compared to the measurements of teeth collected in 2012. Martin intends to collect the baby teeth of Fukushima children for the next five to 10 years.
Sr90 is not found naturally in the environment. Nuclear weapons and power plants are its only sources. Baby teeth studies in the United States ultimately helped lead to the banning of atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons.
From 1945 to 1963 the U.S. tested 206 nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. In 1959, the Baby Tooth Survey was launched by the Greater St. Louis Citizens’ Committee for Nuclear Information and the dentistry schools at Washington University in St. Louis and St. Louis University, with Dr. Louise Reiss as director. Over the course of 12 years nearly 320,000 baby teeth were collected. According to The New York Times, “The study ultimately found that children born in St. Louis in 1963 had 50 times as much strontium-90 in their teeth as children born in 1950 — before most of the atomic tests.”
The findings of Reiss’ study came to the attention of President John F. Kennedy and were presented before a Senate committee in June 1963. Two months later, on Aug. 5, the U.S., Soviet Union and Britain signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty. Reiss had played a role in convincing world leaders to ban the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere.
In recent decades similar tests have been conducted to determine how much Sr90 is being emitted into the atmosphere by nuclear power plants. Here in Japan, Yuko Nishiyama, a Fukushima mother and activist, is helping Walter collect the teeth. Nishiyama evacuated Fukushima city in March 2011. She first relocated temporarily in Tokyo and then chose to move to Kyoto with her daughter, where she started a support group for evacuees.
“I want people to know that this is something we’ll have to worry about,” Nishiyama has said.
Prime Minister, we implore your administration to take into serious consideration the concerns of the international medical community when deciding the country’s future nuclear policy. Government officials must also bear in mind the anxieties of Fukushima parents when determining how they should be compensated and supported.
JASON BARTASHIUS and ANDREAS NIDECKER
Jason Bartashius is a lecturer and writer who lives in Kyoto. Professor Andreas Nidecker, M.D., is a radiologist and board member of the IPPNW. Send all your comments on this issue and Hotline to Nagata-cho submissions of 500-700 words to firstname.lastname@example.org .