It is axiomatic that any group in Japan — doctors, dentists or candlestick makers — will want to turn itself into a tightly bound community, closed off from the outside world. It will be concerned almost entirely with its own survival and prosperity.
Sometimes this can be for the good. It helps preserve morale and loyalty. In the enterprise, it is often the key to superior productivity. But as we see with the Japanese police or military, for example, it can also become an excuse to cover up serious incompetence and wrongdoing.
To get round these problems, many groups now try to give the appearance of openness by having outsiders appointed to watch-dog bodies or advisory committees. But usually it is the people who are supposed to be watched over who select the watch dogs and who get to write the final reports. The watch dogs easily degenerate into lap dogs, as we now discover with the Public Safety Commission, which was supposed to be watching over Japan’s police forces.
Advisory or consultative committees are not much better. I am sometimes included in such committees (political correctness here now says a committee should include at least one foreigner and one woman, and a Japanese-speaking foreign female in sync with Japan, Inc. could find herself in great demand). For the most part, committee members are fairly powerless, even if they do get a good insight to the workings of Japan, Inc.
Nuclear energy is currently a hot topic here, and I find myself on not one but three different committees. I accept conventional arguments in favor of nuclear energy — global warming, air pollution, the world’s dangerous dependence on fossil fuels, expanding the frontiers of science, etc.
Much is made of occasional accidents and casualties in nuclear plants. But we hear little about the thousands who die each year in coal-mining accidents (in China, Russia and the Ukraine especially), or the harm caused as the large oil-consuming nations manipulate the politics of oil producers in their favor.
But watching the tactics of the nuclear energy people here, one wonders if they are not their own worst enemies. There is no need constantly to downplay alternative energies. Admit the possibilities, but go on to discuss the need for something to fill the gap if and until the alternatives are proved feasible.
And why the need to get involved in the messy and expensive business of plutonium recycling? The original excuse — that the world might run out of uranium — is clearly untrue. Is there some other reason?
The never-ending claims of constant attention to safety don’t help much either. For one thing, the accidents that do occur are usually the result of inattention to safety.
And the assurances carry little weight anyway since the public takes it for granted that the nuclear-power industry, like all other organizations in Japan, will do everything to cover up its mistakes and weaknesses.
In Japan, even more than elsewhere, the industry must do everything to prove its integrity. Well before the recent JCO accident spilling radiation into Ibaraki’s rice fields, and even after, I have run into deep frost each time I have tried to warn of the need for outside third parties, or an ombudsman system, to monitor safety.
True, having outsiders inspect nuclear plants is a lot harder than having them watching over delinquent police forces. And when it comes to key processes in energy production, as opposed to handling waste or mixing materials, Japanese technicians can usually be relied upon to behave properly.
The threat of serious danger seems to concentrate the Japanese mind.
But the main need for outside, third-party involvement is elsewhere — as the only way to counter the rise of powerful antinuclear movements, such as we have seen in almost all Western societies. The Japanese industry still seems to think that it can get by with paternalistic assurances and a program of educating the public in the need for and safety of nuclear energy.
One sympathizes with the industry’s belief that much opposition is based on irrational fears of the unknown. People used to oppose steam engines, electricity, mobile telephones and space travel for much the same reasons.
Opposition based on fear of nuclear proliferation used to make more sense. But eventual proliferation was inevitable the moment the United States made clear it reserved the right to make a nuclear first strike, and is even more inevitable now that the U.S. and West Europe have begun to brandish the right to use superior air-power against anyone they do not like.
In Australia, where antiproliferation and antinuclear energy fears have always been strong, they reached the ultimate irrationality of trying in the 1980s to ban all uranium exports, leaving the way open for a rightwing, apartheid-loving South Africa with no interest whatsoever in preventing proliferation, free to dominate world trade in the substance.
The Japanese industry pins hopes on the way the French public accepts 80 percent of its electrical power coming from nuclear plants. But France is a special situation, with nuclear power seen as the one last prop to claims of independence and to Gallic pride in alleged technical and cultural superiority.
France also has a long tradition of strong state control, and of public belief in the excellence of that control. That belief does not exist elsewhere, Japan included.
If only for this reason, the industry needs to move rapidly from its “we know best” attitudes, to admit it is part and parcel of the society at large and accepts genuine outside supervision.
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