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Japanese antinuclear voices are still struggling to be heard

by Philip Brasor

On March 26, NHK covered an antinuclear power demonstration in Germany that attracted thousands of protesters. The report pointed out that the demonstration was sparked by the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear reactor. The next day, there was a march by Japanese antinuke protesters in Tokyo. Though it was much smaller than the German demonstration, it seems odd that the Japanese media didn’t cover it, given how sensitive people have become to the subject of nuclear energy.

Ever since the tsunami damaged the cooling system at the Fukushima plant on March 11, setting the crisis in motion, the nuclear energy industry and the authorities who support it have received an enormous amount of criticism in the press for their handling of the crisis and, to a lesser extent, the content of their policies. Under such circumstances, reporters might be expected to run to the sort of people likely to say “I told you so!” — but the antinuke contingent remains for the most part invisible.

The weeklies are starting to cover this group, but have mainly piled onto Tokyo Electric Power Co., focusing on the company’s perceived venality. Shukan PostS outlined decades of collusion between power companies and government ministries, whose members retire to cushy jobs with the former. Even former police officials get positions, it claimed, since they have connections with members of organized crime, who are useful in keeping a lid on antinuclear activism at a local level.

In Japan, the only antinuclear sentiments that receive attention are those expressed by residents of municipalities where reactors are built. Japan’s “nuclear allergy” is mostly a legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but it also has something to do with the resentment people in the countryside feel about being bribed with jobs and money from the central government to host remote power generation facilities for Japan’s major cities. Such opposition has news value, but as far as the establishment is concerned — and the mainstream media belongs to the establishment — the more organized antinuke movement is made up of hippie radicals who walk around wearing hats made of aluminum foil. You can find their self-made videos on YouTube next to the 911 conspiracy documentaries.

An article in Aera explained, indirectly, why antinuclear forces are not taken seriously. The editors asked scientists if their opinion of nuclear power had changed since the Fukushima crisis. Without exception, “pronuclear” experts stated that their stance remained the same. One said that while he felt sorry for people who lived around the plant, nuclear power was still a safe form of energy. A Kyoto University professor agreed, adding that nuclear energy is “indispensable” for reducing Japan’s carbon output.

Aera also interviewed scientists who are against nuclear energy. Not surprisingly, the accident has only reinforced their view that, as one professor put it, “it’s impossible for humans to control radiation.” Another challenged the conventional wisdom that sustainable measures such as solar and wind power are too uneconomical to replace nuclear as clean energy sources. One of the central tenets of the pronuke position is that, while uranium is expensive, it is also reusable. The antinuke side counters that whatever costs are saved by atomic fuel’s recyclabe nature is more than offset by the enormous price of construction, safety measures, and the disposal of spent fuel. Most of these costs are paid by future generations.

Kunihiko Takeda of Chubu University commented that the two sides are “eternally talking past each other.” Aera sent questionnaires to twice as many pronuke scientists as it did to antinuke scientists but most on the pro side didn’t respond. When the editors called one to find out why, he replied, “It’s a sterile argument.” Scientists can only work with “the truth, but antinuclear people just throw my words back at me.”

Neither side seems willing to compromise. Antinuke forces talk about anzen shinwa, or “the myth of safety”: There is no such thing as an acceptable level of radiation. At the same time, pronuke forces won’t discuss the “inherent danger” of nuclear energy. In a separate Aera article, Tatsuro Uchida, a professor at Kobe College, mentioned that this refusal to concede the safety point is illustrated by Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s insistence that the backup cooling systems for the Fukushima reactors didn’t need to be placed on higher ground since it was “inconceivable” that any disaster could knock out the ones they placed at sea level. We now know that the possibility of an enormous tsunami doing just that was brought to Tepco’s attention years ago, but it did nothing.

Under the present circumstances, the pro side has more to lose than just face. Japan spends an enormous amount of money on nuclear energy and the power companies enjoy virtual monopolies, even though the electricity generation field was liberalized in the 1990s. Theoretically, anyone can produce electricity and sell it, but only the regional power companies can sell it to residential users. Independent producers can sell to the big power companies, but thanks to the government, which sets the price, many receive less than what it costs to make that energy. The only competition is in energy sales to large industrial users. The power companies would like to keep it that way, and as long as Japan depends on nuclear energy, they will.

One of the ironies of Fukushima is that the crisis helped antinuke forces in Germany — where consumers can choose from more than one energy provider — to stall their government’s nuclear plans; while in Japan, where the crisis continues, antinuke forces are impotent. That situation may change as weekly magazines seek the opinions of local antinuke activists. Many people will still see them as crackpots, but considering what the pronuke side has wrought at Fukushima, sometimes you want to hear what the crackpot has to say.

Philip Brasor blogs at philipbrasor.com.