“Of all the places in all the world where no one in their right mind would build scores of nuclear power plants, Japan would be pretty near the top of the list,” wrote Leuren Moret in a “Power and the people” Timeout special in The Japan Times on May 23, 2004.
Her story, headlined “Japan’s deadly game of nuclear roulette,” continued: “The Japanese archipelago is located on the so-called Pacific Rim of Fire, a large active volcanic and tectonic zone ringing North and South America, Asia and island arcs in Southeast Asia. The major earthquakes and active volcanoes occurring there are caused by the westward movement of the Pacific tectonic plate and other plates leading to subduction under Asia.”
Then, in a prescient alert, the U.S.-based geoscientist and radiation specialist pointed out that “Japan sits on top of four tectonic plates, at the edge of a subduction zone, and is in one of the most tectonically active regions of the world.”
Of course, there are arguments to be made for the use of nuclear power during our transition from today’s dependence on fossil fuels to tomorrow’s safe and sustainable alternative energy sources. For the interim we have no other choice.
In an ideal world we might even create and maintain failsafe reactors, and safely manage and dispose of the radioactive wastes they generate.
But here’s the rub: Once we add natural disasters, backroom politics, simple greed and human error to the mix, reality trumps the ideal and nuclear power becomes an unpredictable, potentially deadly liability.
Nonetheless, in the short term we have little choice. Modern society is heavily invested in the infrastructure of fossil fuels and nuclear power, and our governments and industries are fully committed economically and philosophically. Like massive oil tankers that require huge distances to change direction, it will take us decades to correct our course.
There are no longer any doubts that nuclear power generation can be tragically lethal, as we have seen at Chernobyl in 1986 and this year at Fukushima. Despite the dangers, however, nuclear power will play a role in the global energy mix until we can extricate ourselves from this dangerous dependence.
That said, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, the government, and Japan’s business leaders have a political, ethical and moral duty to move this nation out of harm’s way as quickly and efficiently as possible.
As Moret notes above, we’d be hard pressed to find a more ludicrous site for nuclear reactors. From Okinawa to Hokkaido, Japan is surfing the break of the Pacific’s tectonic plates.
Equally important, international law’s concepts of intergenerational equity and equality call upon us to leave this planet to our children in a condition that is not substantially degraded from the world we have inherited.
This means we have a responsibility to embrace conservation and efficiency as the first steps toward the creation of a benign energy future. Next, we will need to rationally develop and adopt alternative energies, including geothermal, hydrogen, solar, tidal, wind and others.
The only alternative to this rational transition is to continue flirting with the possibility of another Fukushima — or, possibly worse, a Chernobyl-type disaster with uncountable victims.
“Twenty years after the catastrophe, the official position of the Chernobyl Forum (2006) is that about 9,000 related deaths have occurred and some 200,000 people have illnesses caused by the catastrophe,” states “Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment,” a 327-page English translation of a 2007 Russian report that was published by the New York Academy of Sciences in 2009.
However, it goes on to state: “A more accurate number estimates nearly 400 million human beings have been exposed to Chernobyl’s radioactive fallout and, for many generations, they and their descendants will suffer the devastating consequences.”
Incredibly, Prime Minister Noda and his administration have unilaterally decided to lead Japan down the path toward another nuclear tragedy.
In a Sept. 23 speech he delivered to a high-level United Nations meeting on nuclear safety and security, Noda made it clear that his administration is prioritizing nuclear power, both as a source of domestic electricity and as an export industry.
“Japan is determined to raise the safety of nuclear power generation to the highest level in the world,” he said, adding, “Japan stands ready to respond to the interest of countries seeking to use nuclear power generation.”
Finally, having made clear that the resurrection of nuclear power is his priority, he gave passing mention to alternative energies.
“In parallel, Japan will also take the lead to increase development and use of renewable energies. Japan will redouble efforts to increase development and use of renewable energies by mobilizing the advanced technologies in the possession of both the public and private sectors,” he added.
And that was it. After nearly 1,000 words in a 1,315-word speech, he delivered this 43-word, mealy-mouthed mention of alternatives. Japan’s people deserve much better from their leader.
Despite all the suffering that the Fukushima reactor meltdowns have caused Japan’s residents, all the months of physical, emotional and economic hardship, Noda had the temerity to spend less than 5 percent of his speech on what his people are most interested in: alternatives to nuclear power.
Yes, at this meeting he was preaching to the choir on nuclear safety and security — but that’s still no excuse. Noda owes it to Japan to speak truthfully of his citizens’ visceral fear of nuclear power, and of their broad-based support for energy alternatives.
It is deeply troubling that Noda, so new to office, has already fallen on his knees before the “nuclear village” bureaucrats who dominate energy decision-making in Japan, and who recently strengthened their hold on the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, according to an op-ed piece that ran in Sentaku Magazine last month and appeared translated into English in The Japan Times on Sept. 26.
The piece noted that there were hopes earlier this year for reform of METI, but these have “proved illusory, as bureaucrats newly appointed to three crucial jobs at METI belong to the ‘electric power village.’ The three are Kensuke Adachi, administrative vice minister, Ichiro Takahara, director general of the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, and Hiroyuki Fukano, director general of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.”
The op-ed went on to explain that “the term ‘electric power village’ or ‘nuclear power village’ has for some time been used to describe the cozy relations among politicians, bureaucrats and industry insiders with vested interest in maintaining the monopolistic status quo of the utilities and promoting nuclear power generation.”
The report continues: “Nothing would have satisfied the power industry more than these appointments at METI. … Looking at the new appointments, nobody close to the power industry or METI would think that METI would work toward reducing or eliminating Japan’s reliance on nuclear energy or seek to break up the monopoly enjoyed by the utilities by separating power generation and power distribution in each power company.”
Outside Japan, the world continues to look on in disbelief, while Japanese citizens grow increasingly frustrated with their government’s failure to devise and implement a rational and benign vision of the nation’s energy future.
Meanwhile, hubristic politicians, bureaucrats and electricity company executives smugly contemplate a return to the pre-Fukushima status quo — despite knowing full well that the vast majority of Japan’s residents hope for a wiser and safer future.
As an editorial in The Japan Times warned on Sept. 28, “People should be watchful of this kind of manipulation by a national leader and bureaucrats.”
Watchful is good. Action is better. The window of opportunity for change in Japan is still open, but for how much longer?
In the 20 years that I have been a resident of Japan, I have never encountered a time more pregnant with the potential for a peaceful transformation of the nation’s political dialectic. Before that window closes, the Japanese have an opportunity to usher in a new democratic societal paradigm that puts the people’s concerns first.
This year Japan has experienced unimaginable tragedy at the hands of nature and at the hands of self-satisfied, arrogant leaders. It is time to ensure that these leaders, at least, are kept at bay.
Stephen Hesse is a professor in the Law Faculty of Chuo University and director of the Chuo International Center. He can be contacted at email@example.com.