What do nuclear power plants and Shinto shrines have in common?
For a start, they tend to be hidden from view — the former in remote coastal locations, the latter behind stands of trees or atop hills or mountains. They are also sources of untold energy — one electrical, the other spiritual.
And if a reactor at a nuclear power plant melts down, another similarity emerges: They are expected to be preserved for thousands of years.
It is this latter similarity that sparked the imagination of Hyogo Prefecture-based architect Katsuhiro Miyamoto, who has recently made an extraordinary proposition about what to do with the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, which suffered three reactor meltdowns following the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011.
The 51-year-old who, in 1996, represented Japan at the “Olympics of architecture” — as the Venice Biennale is known — has suggested erecting giant shrine-style thatched roofs over each of the crippled reactor buildings — and so creating what he dubs “The Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant Shrine.” This, he tells The Japan Times, will “pacify a malevolent god.”
As yet, no long-term strategy for dealing with the now highly radioactive plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co. has been developed. Far from it, in fact, since work is still ongoing to stabilize the leaking reactors. Ultimately, however, Miyamoto believes the key issue will be what to do with the highly radioactive nuclear fuel that either remains in or has melted through the reactors’ containment vessels.
“They won’t be able to bury it on the site because the land there is not geologically stable enough, and I doubt they will be able to take it off the site because no other local government will agree to take it,” Miyamoto observes. “That means they will have to stabilize it somehow and more or less leave it where it is.”
That done, the next task as he sees it would be one he believes architects are uniquely positioned to address: the creation of some kind of structure above and around the reactors that will convey to future generations — possibly for 10,000 years — the danger of what lies within.
In this respect he points out that, “Whereas the original blue confetti-like pattern painted on the reactor buildings seems like a device to conceal danger, a shrine-like structure will do the opposite.”
As to the choice of a shrine-like appearance — rather than, say, giant skull-and-crossbones graphics adorning the buildings — Miyamoto concedes that “not all Japanese would describe themselves as ‘believers’ in Shinto.” Nonetheless, he thinks “most would agree that when they visit a shrine they sense a kind of inexplicable power there. Shrines have been conveying that impression for many generations already, and they are likely to do so in the future, too.”
The architect notes that with thatched roofs topping each of the six reactor buildings at the Fukushima No. 1 plant, the site will come to resemble Uesugi Ancestral Hall in the city of Yonezawa, Yamagata Prefecture, where 12 small shrines laid out in a line commemorate 12 successive generations of the Uesugi clan’s feudal lords, whose lives spanned more than 250 years from 1623-1876.
And like that ancestral hall, the architect believes the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant Shrine “will respectfully serve as an icon to enshrine the souls of the departed” — but unlike it, “it will also deter anyone from approaching.”
Miyamoto, who is currently exhibiting his unusual plan at the Tachibana Gallery in Osaka’s Nishi Ward, has gone so far as to calculate the sizes of the roofs required for each of the reactor buildings. The largest would be 88 meters above ground level at its apex, he reckons.
However, the architect’s vision for this lethally blighted site isn’t to “shrineify” it and then seal the wrecked reactors with concrete, encircle the whole area with electrified razor-wire and then try to forget about its existence.
On the contrary, Miyamoto has deliberately chosen a form of preservation whose upkeep will be as labor-intensive in a millennium as it would be now to put in place, since all thatched roofs must be rethatched periodically. Because of this — and perhaps assisted by it being designated as a National Treasure — “the negative legacy of the site will never be forgotten,” as he puts it.
Tachibana Gallery-operator Junichi Chiba told The Japan Times that he was initially worried that visitors would react negatively to the drawing of parallels between religion and nuclear power. “But that hasn’t been the case,” he said. “I think in Japan there has always been a tradition of building shrines on the sites of disasters, and so the public is accepting of the idea.”
Chiba also noted that people still don’t really understand radiation, and that this has lent credence to the plan for the shrine. “One elderly man pointed out that in Japan there is a culture of deifying as gods that which is scary and incomprehensible, so this plan makes sense,” he said.
But not all the feedback has been positive. Miyamoto explains that some people have pointed out the distance of his Hyogo Prefecture base from Fukushima, suggesting he doesn’t understand the locals’ feelings.
Whatever the truth of that, the architect’s disaster-response credentials speak for themselves. Not only has he taken architecture students to the tsunami-ravaged areas of Honshu’s northern Tohoku region to help make plans for relocating coastal communities, but he was also deeply involved with volunteer work by architects after the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995.
Still, Miyamoto admits that he was, and continues to be, nervous about how the general public will receive his proposal for The Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant Shrine.
“I actually thought someone else would put this idea out there, so I wouldn’t have to,” he explains. “But that didn’t happen.”
As a result, he ended up reasoning that the most important thing was to get people thinking about what to do with the plant. “This is one idea, and I think it will help to get the conversation started,” he says.
Katsuhiro Miyamoto’s exhibition, “The Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant Shrine: Pacifying Malevolent Gods,” is at the Tachibana Gallery in Osaka until March 24. For more details, visit dancer.co.jp.