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Citizens’ lack of resolve leaves nuclear door wide open for next disaster

by Roger Pulvers

Special To The Japan Times

Second of two parts

Next month we will commemorate the second anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, and the ongoing nuclear calamity that ensued. But the personal tragedies it has brought about will remain on the conscience of the Japanese until those in business and government who are responsible for the nuclear disaster own up to their negligence.

Much as after World War II — when guilt was sublimated and liability evaded — the aftermath of the explosions and meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant has seen a concerted campaign of obfuscation and coverup by business leaders and government officials in what might be called “The Great Nasuri-tsukeru Hoax,” with nasuri-tsukeru meaning “shifting the blame to others.”

One person who copped a good portion of that shifted blame is Naoto Kan, prime minister at the time. However, with the publication of a book last year, he intends, in a very clear and logically formulated way, to set the record straight. “My Thoughts as Prime Minister on the Tepco Fukushima Nuclear Plant Accident” records blow-by-blow descriptions of events as they unfolded after the megaquake and tsunami struck on March 11, 2011.

Kan immediately realized that the proposal by Masataka Shimizu, president of Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco), owners and operators of the plant, to withdraw its workers was an invitation to catastrophe.

He called Shimizu to the Prime Minister’s Residence on March 15, telling him, “There will be no withdrawal.” Then he went to Tepco’s head office in Uchisaiwai-cho, a short drive from the Residence, to explain that the headquarters for dealing with the reactors was, with government participation, going to be established there. Tepco owned the plant; they must own the disaster.

“I don’t care how much money it takes,” he told Tepco officials, “Tepco has got to take it on. Withdrawal, when the very existence of Japan is at stake, is out of the question. … People 60 and over can go to the plant. I’m resolved to go myself if necessary.”

“Tepco’s way of dealing with things,” he writes in his book, “was to wait for something to happen and then react. Their logistics weren’t functioning, particularly at the head office. Even some days after the accident they still hadn’t been able to get batteries and necessary equipment to the plant.

“What is being called into question here,” he continues, “is not just technical issues or economic matters; it is people’s way of life, their civilization. The nuclear accident is a calamity that arose due to a mistaken choice made in the culture as a whole. Discontinuing nuclear power generation is not a technical problem: It is something that depends ultimately on the wishes of the people.”

If this is true, then the wishes of the people as of February 2013 can be said to be “confused” at best. Though opinion polls conducted since the accident have shown a distinct majority of Japanese in favor of the methodical abandonment of nuclear power, a similarly distinct majority opted to vote in a government last December that is openly dedicated to the resurrection of nuclear power generation.

Such conflicted majorities attest to a lack of resolve in the populace, a condition that is easily exploited by powerful interests and a media who meekly follow their lead.

And yet Kan is forthright: “I personally experienced the nuclear accidents on and after March 11,” he writes, “and I came to the conclusion that it is fundamentally unnatural for humans to exploit nuclear reactions, and that nuclear energy threatens the existence of the human race.”

As for the issue of his alleged meddling into the affairs of a private company, Kan points out that this was a “severe accident,” and that such a circumstance “comes, without a doubt, under the authority of the prime minister to deal with.”

At 6:14 a.m. on March 12, 2011, he set out by helicopter from the roof of the Residence to visit and inspect the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. What he saw there “was like a wartime field hospital. … The corridors were filled with workers, some sleeping on the floor. Some men had blankets wrapped around them, others were bare-chested. They all had the same vacant stare in their eyes.”

Neither Nuclear Safety Commission Chairman Haruki Madarame nor Sakae Muto, then Tepco’s executive vice president in charge of nuclear issues, could answer his questions about the possibility of hydrogen explosions or whether vents would be used to lessen their probability.

Imagine the result in the community — not to mention the world at large — if the prime minister had left men like this totally in charge of a catastrophe about to happen. Would he not have been roundly condemned, then and forever, for shirking the responsibilities of a head of state?

“It was Tepco that, by all rights, should have had the raw data … but no matter who I asked, no one knew who was making decisions, no one knew who was in charge. Everything was done in an atmosphere of anonymity.”

Unlike an accident at a non-nuclear plant, where the fire eventually goes out and the damage is geographically limited, when one occurs at a nuclear plant, writes Kan, “the damage gets worse with time. … The half-life of plutonium is 24,000 years. … Japan was being occupied by radiation. The enemy was not attacking from the outside. Japan had given birth to its own mortal enemy. There was no escape.”

In the weeks and months following the accident, Kan became convinced that “there is no such thing as safe nuclear energy. The risk of the state collapsing as a result of an accident is just too great.”

Before the accident, there had been a plan to increase the number of reactors by at least 14 by 2030. By the end of March 2011, Kan had resolved to scrap this plan. Now, though, a new and energized pro-nuclear government has announced that plans for new reactors will go ahead.

“In the last 30-odd years,” writes Kan, “wind power and solar power have been scorned as a nuisance by the electric power companies; and, as a result, we have not been able to create developments in these despite our advanced technological know-how. So we are now way behind European countries in this field.

“We should seize the opportunity given to us by the accident to rethink our basic energy plan from the drawing board onward. I want to make natural forms of energy generation, such as those from the wind and the sun, ‘the next generation’ of Japan’s basic energy sources.”

In June 2011, the prime minister spoke in front of a Diet committee on energy.

“Just being against nuclear energy may have some significance,” he said. “But if such a protest is not part of a rethinking on energy strategies as a whole, we will just be left with a pie in the sky. I aim to link the energy issue to the realization of a new paradigm, while pursuing the growth of the nation’s economy at the same time.”

The paradigm of Prime Minister Kan is now buried in the contaminated soils of the northeastern Tohoku region of Honshu, with the new guard standing watch, their backs to the past.

The lessons of March 11, 2011, will have to be learned for us by the next generation of Japanese. Let’s hope time is on their side.