Nuclear Nation

Japan's unlikely love affair with atomic energy.


The devastating earthquake that hit Japan on March 11, together with the following massive tsunami, completely destroyed the picturesque northeast coast of Japan’s main island, taking potentially tens of thousands of lives and creating hundreds of thousands of refugees.

Along this stretch of utter destruction sit four nuclear power stations, comprising a total of 15 reactors, within a distance of about 200 kilometers. Of these, the Fukushima No.1 nuclear power station, operated by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), is the largest, comprising six nuclear reactors. Until now, TEPCO was proud of the robustness of the containment vessels of these reactors, claiming that they were made utilizing the same technology originally developed to produce the main battery of the world-largest naval artillery ever produced, mounted on the gigantic battleship, Yamato, the pride of the Japanese Imperial Navy, which U.S. forces destroyed toward the end of the Asia-Pacific War. TEPCO claimed that the nuclear reactors would safely stop, then automatically cool down and tightly contain the radiation in the event of an earthquake, and that there would therefore be no danger that earthquakes would cause any serious nuclear accident. The vulnerability of nuclear reactors to earthquakes was already evident, however, when TEPCO’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant on Japan’s northwest coast caused several malfunctions, including a fire in a transformer, and a small quantity of radiation leaked into the ocean and the atmosphere following a magnitude 6.8 earthquake that hit this region in July 2007. In spite of this serious accident, TEPCO officials still arrogantly boasted of their "world-best nuclear power technology."

They’re not boasting anymore. Immediately after the earthquake violently shook Fukushima and the tsunami surged and damaged many buildings of the power station, the notion of the "safe and durable reactor," a myth promulgated by TEPCO, was immediately shattered. At this writing, half of the six reactors seem to be on the verge of melting down, and one of the containment buildings has caught fire due to spent fuel rods combusting. The radiation level in the vicinity of the power station is extremely high, and it is spreading as far as Tokyo and Yokohama. Thus, as every day passes, an unprecedented scale of nuclear disaster is unfolding, making it more and more difficult to arrest the multiple problems of radioactivity.

What went wrong with Japan’s nuclear industry? It is often said that the Japanese are hypersensitive about nuclear issues because of the experience of nuclear holocaust. How could they not be? On the morning of August 6, 1945, an atomic bomb instantly killed 70,000 to 80,000 civilian residents of Hiroshima city, and by the end of that year, 140,000 residents of that city had died as a result of the bombing. Another 70,000 were killed in Nagasaki. Many others have subsequently died, often after experiencing a lifetime of suffering, or are still suffering from various diseases caused by the blast, fire, and radiation.

Yet opposition to nuclear energy has never been strong in Japan. Why? It is true that the Japanese, in particular the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are highly conscious of the danger of nuclear weapons. A-bomb survivors, who know well the terror of the bomb and who fear the long-lasting effects of radiation, have therefore been the vanguard of the anti-nuclear weapon campaign. Despite this, however, many A-bomb survivors and anti-nuclear weapon activists have so far been indifferent to the nuclear energy issue. Anti-nuclear energy campaigners have long been marginalized in Japan.

For example, a small group of anti-nuclear energy activists in Hiroshima have been actively involved in the movement against the Chugoku Electric Power Company’s (CEPCO) plan to build a nuclear power station near Kaminoseki, a beautiful fishing village on Japan’s Inland Sea, about 50 miles away from Hiroshima. However they have had virtually no support from any A-bomb survivors’ organizations. Nor have either the former or current mayors of Hiroshima, who are widely known as staunch advocates for the abolishment of nuclear weapons, ever supported this local anti-nuclear power movement. Indeed they never expressed concern about the danger of nuclear power accidents. That made it easier for CEPCO, over strong opposition by this group of anti-nuclear energy activists in solidarity with the fishermen of Kaminoseki, to start construction work early this year. (The company did, however, temporarily stop construction work on the Kaminoseki site on the day of the earthquake, suggesting that the nuclear power industry and the government will have difficulty resuming work on nuclear plants following the disasters.)

There are many reasons for this peculiar dichotomy in the antinuclear movement in Japan. One reason is that postwar Japanese governments strongly backed nuclear science, particularly after U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower began promoting the idea of "atoms for peace" in 1953. The feeling in Tokyo, among politicians and scientists alike, was that Japan had neglected scientific research during the war. Many believed their nation was defeated in World War II by American technological prowess, exemplified above all by the United States’ evident mastery of nuclear physics.

This attitude, together with a deep anxiety about the lack of natural energy resources in a nation that relies on imports for 100 percent of its oil and is the world’s largest importer of coal, overtly encouraged Japan’s embrace of nuclear energy. Particularly since the late 1960s, the Japanese government has wielded pork-barrel policies to secure the approval of local communities in remote areas for the construction of nuclear-power plants in their backyards. The government has allocated huge sums to build public facilities such as libraries, hospitals, recreation centers, gymnasiums, and swimming pools in areas where local councils accepted a nuclear power station. Meanwhile, power companies have paid large sums of money to landowners and fishermen to force them to relinquish their properties and fishing rights. Unsurprisingly, political corruption soon became part of the package as construction companies provided large sums of kickbacks to politicians in return for contracts. All the while, the government and power companies promoted the myth that nuclear power was clean and safe, thereby marginalizing the anti-nuclear energy movement.

Although for a short period following the Chernobyl accident in 1986, the anti-nuclear power movement in Japan enjoyed nationwide popular support, but it quickly faded following campaigns by the government and the power companies. Despite many accidents since, the seriousness of these incidents was effectively covered up by changing data records and falsifying reports to the government. Consequently, there are now 17 nuclear power stations around the earthquake-prone Japanese archipelago, comprising 54 nuclear reactors that provide 30 percent of Japan’s total electricity generating capacity.

The anti-nuclear movement has been warning of the dangers of a devastating nuclear accident for years, but those efforts have always been met with dismissive assurances both by electric power companies and the government about the safety of the reactors. The Fukushima accident has brought to fruition all the fears and predictions previously expressed. And just as the atomic bomb indiscriminately killed tens of thousands of civilians, this nuclear reactor accident, albeit on a smaller scale, will be responsible for indiscriminate suffering and lives cut short; the consequences are likely to play out over the next several decades due to radiation pollution and the resulting economic costs.

And yet, amid catastrophe, a better Japan might well emerge. At a minimum, it ought to provide a wakeup call to those who wrongly assumed that nuclear power was as safe, clean, and cost-effective as its boosters told us. Japan has the technical, scientific, and financial resources to become a world leader in truly green energy. All it needs now is the will.

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