What will Japan learn from the Fukushima meltdowns?

by Michael Hoffman

Special To The Japan Times

Can Japan afford nuclear power? Can Japan afford to dispense with nuclear power? If the answer to both questions is no — as, in the wake of the Fukushima reactor meltdowns, it appears it may be — we are at a fukurokōji (袋小路, impasse). What to do?

Prime Minister Naoto Kan is often criticized as ketsudanryoku ga nai (決断力がない, indecisive). No doubt he is, and yet who wouldn’t be in the face of the jirenma (ジレンマ, dilemma) he confronts? Under current circumstances, the only way not to be indecisive is to be mubō (無謀, reckless), which is probably worse.

On May 6, Kan requested that Chubu Electric Power Co. teishi suru (停止する, shut down) its genshiryoku hatsudensho (原子力発電所, nuclear power plant) at Hamaoka in Shizuoka Prefecture. Why a yōsei (要請, request) and not a meirei (命令, order)? Because he has no legal authority to issue the latter. In any case, Chubu Electric complied. The Hamaoka reactor sits on a katsudansō (活断層, active fault). “Kongo sanjūnenkan de 87 pāsento no kakuritsu de okiru” (「今後三十年間で87パーセントの確率 で起きる 」 “an 87 percent chance of occurring within the next 30 years”) is what seismologists say of the devastating jishin (地震, earthquake) potentially brewing along it. So inevitable is it considered to be that it has already been given a name: Tokai Jishin (東海地震, the Tokai Earthquake).

Hamaoka genpatsu no teishi wo yōsei shita handan no “hyōka wa rekishi no nakade handan shitehoshii” (浜岡原発の停止を要請した判断の「評価は歴史の中で判断してほしい」”Let history evaluate my judgment” in requesting the shutdown of the Hamaoka plant) said Kan, decking his move in rekishiteki (歴史的, historic) distinction.

But granted Hamaoka may be the nation’s most vulnerable nuclear plant — is it the only dangerous one? Far from it, is the consensus now emerging, and the astonishing thing is that it took a saigai (災害, disaster) on the scale of the one currently unfolding to temper the former optimism. Japan knew, if any country knew, that nuclear fission is not to be trifled with. It has, after all, seen the atom destroy two cities, and has long claimed a special sensitivity with regard to things nuclear.

And yet, spurred by energy-hunger sharpened by the oil shock of the 1970s, Japan went on a nuclear reactor building spree that no dansō (断層, geological fault) could check, no tsunami threat restrain. The magazine Sunday Mainichi last month quoted a geologist as saying, “Kuni ya denryoku gaisha ga yatteiru katsudanso hyoka no zusansa ni watashi wa okotte imasu.” (「国や電力会社がやっている活断層評価のずさんさに私は怒っています」 “The carelessness with which the central government and the power companies evaluated active faults makes me furious.”)

Kan’s request affects three reactors. What about the other 51?

Since the catastrophic meltdown at the Fukushima plant operated by Tokyo Denryoku (東京電力, Tokyo Electric Power Co., aka Tepco), antinuclear demonstrators have hit the streets, here and there, waving signs reading “No nukes” and “Kodomotachi no mirai wo mamorō!” (「子供たちの未来を守ろう!」”Protect our children’s future!”). Many demonstrators wear hayfever masks, heightening the ghoulish effect. But how far do they really want to go? “No nukes” means, practically speaking, one of three things: drastically shrinking the economy and living with the consequences; relying more heavily on karyoku hatsuden (火力発電, thermal power generation); or shifting (belatedly, many would say) to shizen enerugī (自然エネルギー, natural energy).

Few seem to take the first alternative seriously. A degree of technological empowerment unthinkable a generation ago is now taken for granted, and giving it up would seem like a voluntary descent into hinkon (貧困, poverty). Fossil fuel-powered thermal generation, though less spectacularly harmful than nuclear meltdown, has problems of its own — it’s environmentally destructive and, as Shukan Post noted last month, “Sekai kakuchi no tankō de wa, maitoshi ichi man nin chikaku no kōfu ga jiko de shindeiru” (「世界各地の炭鉱では、毎年一万人近くの鉱夫が死んでいる」”Every year nearly 10,000 miners die in coal-mine accidents worldwide”).

There remains 自然エネルギー, but is it realistic? Or is it, as an Asahi Shimbun reader wrote last month in a letter to the editor, “e ni kaita mochi” (「絵に描いた餅」 literally, “a picture of rice cake” — “pie in the sky,” in other words)? 自然エネルギー means taiyōkō hatsuden (太陽光発電, solar power) or fūryoku hatsuden (風力発電, wind power). To say nothing of their technological and economic viability, would a landscape of solar panels and fūsha (風車, windmills) be appealing?

Opinion polls worldwide show faith in nuclear power largely unshaken by Fukushima. Those who find that surprising are a bit like the French philosopher Voltaire, who marveled that the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755 didn’t shake people’s faith in God.