A hot genpatsu-free summer threatens

by Michael Hoffman

Special To The Japan Times

Two things make a battered Japan cringe: genpatsu (原発, nuclear power) and fukeiki (不景気, economic stagnation). The nation has suffered deeply from both. As spring fades into a potentially sweltering, potentially stagnant summer, there arises an agonizing dilemma: Can the latter be avoided, or at least minimized, without the former?

The only nation ever to suffer atomic bombing, Japan postwar rushed nevertheless to embrace nuclear power. Yakeato kara tachiagaru (焼け跡から立ち上がる, rising from the ashes) was what everyone was eager to do, and 原発 seemed the ideal means. Before the March 11, 2011, catastrophe, Japan was one of the most genpatsu izon (原発依存, nuclear-dependent) societies on Earth, with 54 genshiro (原子炉, nuclear reactors) generating roughly a third of its electricity. Today, four of those reactors are crippled and the rest are shut down, mainly for teiki kensa (定期検査, regular inspections). Normally their saikadō (再稼動, restarting) would be a matter of course. But normality is gone, and isn’t likely to resume anytime soon.

What to do? Feverishly and a little desperately, the government struggles to convince jichitai (自治体, local governments) to accept its assurances of nuclear safety and agree to restarts. Consent by the local governments is not legally mandatory, but truculent voters are in no mood to see it overridden. Last month the government’s campaign focused on the Fukui Prefecture town of Oi, where two 原子炉 operated by Kansai Denryoku (関西電力, Kansai Electric Power Co., Kepco) have passed government-mandated stress tests (ストレステスト) but remain idled under pressure from local authorities who suspect the tests were perfunctory. On May 14, the Oi town assembly saikadō wo sansei shita (再稼動を賛成した, endorsed the restart), but other authorities in the neighborhood, notably the governors of Shiga, Kyoto and Osaka prefectures, and Osaka’s charismatic Mayor Toru Hashimoto, are having none of it.

Hashimoto’s dismissal of government measures and government pronouncements since the March 11, 2011 triple meltdown at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant has been consistent and, at times, mordant. Of the Oi plant stress tests he snapped, “Konna tetsuzuki de kokumin ga nattoku suru no ka, honto ni” (「こんな手続きで国民を納得させられるのか」”Do you seriously expect citizens to be convinced by these proceedings?”).

Whatever the central government, local governments and power companies do or don’t do, summer heat could push nuclear-free, power-short Japan to the brink of its endurance, if not beyond. A foretaste of what we might be in for was provided by the mōsho (猛暑, intense heat) of 2010, one of the hottest summers on record. The average temperature in Tokyo that year from June to August was 27.1 degrees — fully 2 degrees higher than normal, the weekly Shukan Shincho reported. Across Japan, some 1,700 people died of necchūshō (熱中症, heatstroke) — the most since records began to be kept in 1964. And that, of course, was with a normal power supply.

Never mind, says Hashimoto: “Maybe the next generation needs to experience restrictions on power supply.” True, we’ve all been spoiled by what to some hardened survivors of harsher times seems like too-easy living. On the other hand, are there dangers Hashimoto is making light of?

Would the city be able to cope with emergencies during a teiden (停電, power outage)? A Kansai-area 自治体 staff member asks Shukan Shincho, “Kaji ga okitara dō naru ka (火事が起きたらどうなるか, If there’s a fire what’ll happen?)” He adds, “Jyūmin no anzen, anshin wo saiyūsen ni kangaeru no ga gyōsei man da to sureba, Hashimoto-san wa shikkaku da to omou.” (「住民の安全、安心を最優先に考えるのが行政マンだとすれば橋下さんは失格だと思う」, “Assuming residents’ safety and security is the first priority of an administrative official, in my opinion Hashimoto doesn’t qualify”).

Setsuden (節電, saving electricity) is a Japanese word that spread round the globe last year as the Japanese people stoically and even cheerfully rose to the challenge. The world applauded — “It’s a good lesson for the United States,” said the New York Times. It helped that last summer was cooler than average and much cooler than the summer of 2010. Will 節電 go as smoothly this year? Last month the central government laid out its sūchi mokuhyō (数値目標, numerical targets), specifying how much electricity each region should save, ranging from 15 percent in Kansai to 5 percent in Chubu and elsewhere. The figures were arrived at genpatsu ga saikadō shite inai koto wo zentei de (原発が再稼動していないことを前提で, on the assumption that the nuclear reactors would not be restarted). The impact on the economy of failing to restart is much debated — grim, say business leaders and power companies; painful but endurable, say many others — the vast majority of others, according to an Asahi Shimbun poll published May 21. It showed 54 percent of respondents saikadō ni tsuite hantai (再稼動について反対, against restarting), versus 29 percent saikadō ni tsuite sansei (再稼動について賛成, in favor of restarting). Meanwhile, 89 percent are willing to shoulder the burden of at least some degree of 節電, — as against a mere 10 percent who want no part of it.

Meanwhile, the nation prepares for keikaku teiden (計画停電, rolling blackouts). Japan thought it had seen the last of those when it ascended to economic superpower status. It was wrong.