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The Fukushima tragedy justifies nuclear skepticism

by Jeff Kingston

The findings of a Kyodo survey conducted in February this year reveal a stunning level of reluctance to restart Japan’s nuclear reactors in the host cities, towns and prefectures that stand to gain from revving them back up.

The nation’s 48 viable reactors are generating no electricity at present — and no local subsidies as long as they are idled. However, the spigot of financial inducements would open up again if the local governments in question were to green-light reactor restarts.

Despite this lure, though, only 13 out of the 135 villages, towns, cities and 21 prefectures situated within 30 km of a nuclear power plant responded to the survey saying they would unconditionally approve bringing local reactors back online if the Nuclear Regulation Authority vouched for their safety; another 24 would do so only if certain other conditions were met. It is a stunning rebuke that less than 10 percent of those authorities are keen to sign up for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s nuclear renaissance despite all the foregone benefits. It’s not what one would expect given the high subsidy-addiction that afflicts these hosting communities.

And lest we forget, these hosting sites were specifically selected because they were dying, remote communities with no other options — and many of them grabbed the nuclear lifeline with gusto.

So now, these desperate towns that are so dependent on the nuclear industry for their operating budgets have got cold feet about nuclear energy and are reconsidering their Faustian bargain.

What’s the matter with these usually reliable supporters of nuclear energy?

Apparently, they now realize that they have been fed a pack of lies by the utilities and the government about reactor safety — and they understand just how unprepared everyone was when catastrophe struck on March 11, 2011. In addition, they have no confidence that those in charge now are any better prepared for the next nuclear disaster.

Why would they be? There have been no evacuation drills for the newly extended 30-kilometer evacuation zones that have vastly increased the logistical difficulties of getting people out of harm’s way in time; three years ago, chaos reigned as authorities improvised evacuations in far smaller zones, managing to relocate people from relatively safe areas to hot zones with high levels of radioactive contamination.

One key lesson of Fukushima is that you don’t want to be practicing an evacuation when the reactors are spewing radiation.

Hosting communities can also see the crass negligence of both the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the stricken plant, regarding the good folk of Fukushima Prefecture who have been left high and dry by the three meltdowns in March 2011.

On Feb. 27, 2014, national broadcaster NHK’s “Close-Up Gendai” TV program focused on the plight of some 130,000 “nuclear refugees” still languishing in temporary housing three years on, still waiting for answers and compassion, and baffled and disheartened by incomprehensible loss amplified by institutional betrayal.

Many of these citizens have received only pittances of compensation and have effectively been abandoned to their fates.

“Close-Up Gendai,” and another NHK special aired on March 8, are timely reminders that Japan’s Chernobyl remains a grim humanitarian crisis of epic proportions that has turned lives upside down, divided families and destroyed communities that had the misfortune of being located near the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. Evacuees have had to abandon ancestral homes, their prospects for ever returning remain slim as decontamination and decommissioning of the plant is slated to take four decades. Not many will be around for a 2050 revival. Already livelihoods have been lost and there is an ongoing exodus of young people who see no future in Fukushima.

Since March 2011, David Slater, a professor of anthropology at Sophia University in Tokyo, has undertaken extensive fieldwork in the affected Tohoku region of northeastern Honshu. He has also edited an excellent book, “Japan Copes with Calamity” (2013), that presents insightful ethnographic studies on blighted commun- ities and details how people are experiencing the aftermath. Drawing on his ground-level experience, Slater is pessimistic about the future of “communities with as few as half of the pre-3/11 population remaining.”

As he sees it, “This has created such thinned-out populations that parents worry about schools and the viability of basic public services. But maybe the more depressing shock is that for those people who have waited all of this time — because either they are committed to staying and rebuilding their communities or because they have no place else to go — only to find that the plans that have been approved have little space for them. The land identified for relocation is too expensive for them to afford.

“The more general lesson is that the whole post-3/11 process of creating a relocation plan left many without any input into it or its implementation.” Consequently, he points out, “Many feel disenfranchised by the process and disoriented by the resulting product — the plan.”

Meanwhile, the ongoing leaks of radioactive water and various glitches in the decommissioning and decontamination work are unsettling for many Fukushima residents who have run out of options.

As Slater notes, “The Fukushima communities are still in a holding pattern … those who have been vocal about the dangers of radiation, and those who have now swallowed their words (if not their fear) under pressure to not ‘stand in the way of recovery,’ point to the lack of any certainty, security, safety.

“One mom (who left with her son and is now back in the community) simply said, ‘We cannot think about this anymore. If we do, we are forced to leave forever or we have to think about living in danger. Right now, our family cannot leave. This has become normal; it is bad, but that seems to be the way it will be for us from now on.”

Abe’s undeclared fourth arrow aiming to turn Japan’s fortunes around is a nuclear renaissance that involves downplaying risks, restarting reactors and exporting reactor technology and equipment while ignoring the plight of Fukushima’s displaced families — decent ordinary citizens who suddenly woke up in an unending nuclear nightmare.

The safety myth is being recalibrated, but remains based on rosy assumptions in a nation especially prone to massive seismic disasters.

The rush to reactor restarts is being justified in terms of surging fuel imports that have driven trade figures into the red. But what about Fukushima’s spiraling $100- billion price tag and Tepco’s bailout sucking on taxpayers like a vampire squid?

“Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster” (2014), by David Lochbaum, Edwin Lyman and Susan Stranahan, is a riveting and meticulous account of the disaster as it unfolded. The authors immerse us in the prevailing confusion, missteps, faulty assumptions, poor risk-management, willful negligence and sheer incompetence — all while making the scientific jargon understandable and exposing a number of pseudo-scientific claims by industry advocates.

In discussing other nuclear accidents, and lessons ignored, the authors also remind us that regulators and utilities have short memories and a tendency to shortchange safety.

Maybe the nuclear village of vested pro-nuclear interests will get it right this time — though hosting communities and the vast majority of Japanese people remain skeptical for good reasons.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

  • craziestprofessor

    Nuclear power is poisonous and
    can not be contained.

    I wish they would turn off the reactors here in California.