Atomic exit deserves warm welcome in land of nuclear apprentices

by Noriko Hama

Special To The Japan Times

As of May 6, Japan became a nuclear power-free zone. All of the nuclear plants throughout the country are offline, either as a result of last year’s Fukushima disaster or routine maintenance. The government and electric power companies are hoping to see them back in action soon, but public sentiment remains strongly skeptical.

That sentiment is wise. There were only two nuclear reactors in Japan in 1970. There are now 50 — with crippled reactors 1 to 4 at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant recently declared defunct.

In 1970, nuclear power accounted for only 1.6 percent of total electricity generation in Japan. That ratio rose to 29.9 percent before the Fukushima crisis. That is certainly a very steep expansion curve. Was such a speed really justifiable? Did we really need all this hurry to go nuclear? Did we really know enough about the technology to make such extensive use of it commercially?

My mother and I often discuss these issues. My mother was not a casualty of either the Hiroshima or Nagasaki atom bombs. But she did witness the devastation that was done to Hiroshima first-hand some six months after the event. And that image has never left her.

With that picture in mind, she is ferociously critical of all things nuclear. And yet for the very same reason, the phrase “peaceful use of nuclear technology,” which came into much use around the 1960s, has an acutely poignant ring for her. It is certainly a wonderful and wondrous achievement for us to be able to make peaceful use of such a source of massive destructiveness. As my mother very correctly puts it, even nuclear power is God’s gift to mankind and it is up to us to make good use of it.

Thinking about all this, I came across the following two sentences: “The world has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants.” The words are taken from U.S. Gen. Omar Nelson Bradley’s speech on Armistice Day in 1948. Bradley was the commanding officer of all U.S. ground troops during the Normandy landings.

There can be nothing more chilling than either brilliance without wisdom or power without conscience. Yet both seem to have been in plentiful supply during Japan’s postwar development of nuclear technology and policy. Ethical infancy is also very much in evidence as we read of power companies trying to get their employees to plant supportive questions ahead of town meetings set up to discuss the reopening of nuclear plants.

There was also the instance of Tokyo Electric Power Co. blackening out sentence after sentence in its internal operation manuals before submitting them to the government.

The all too inevitable image that springs to mind at this stage is that of the sorcerer’s apprentice. He is quick to get the hang of casting spells and making inanimate objects do wonderful things for him. Conjuring up energy-saving ways of getting things done then becomes his forte.

While he has ample brilliance to learn new tricks, he lacks the wisdom to hold off until he has learned how to undo them. In the eagerness to develop his magical powers, his mind becomes a conscience-free zone devoid of the ethics of power usage.

The storybook sorcerer’s apprentice can always rely on his master to come back in time to remedy the damage his infantile abuses have caused. Yet his real-life counterparts in the field of nuclear technology enjoy no such privilege.

That is the truly frightening thing. Japan as a no-nuke zone feels quite nice from that perspective: no dangerous toys for the arrogant apprentices to play around with.

Noriko Hama is an economist and professor of Doshisha University Graduate School of Business.