Thursday, August 18, 2011

Nuclear Blues


August 6th marked the 66th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, where a solemn commemoration has marked the years since 166,000 men, women and children lost their lives, tens of thousands of them to the lingering effects of radiation. This year, with Japan suffering in the aftermath of another nuclear disaster, the Hiroshima ceremony saw Prime Minister Naoto Kan deliver a speech in which he expressed contrition for believing in "the security myth of nuclear power". Mr Kan also promised an investigation into the incidents at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, which are fast becoming a source for much public criticism of his administration and the state of Tokyo bureaucracy and the Japanese nuclear industry in general.

Such hostility to nuclear power is nothing new in Japan, but the events in Fukushima have raised popular antipathy to its highest level in decades, with about 70 percent favouring a comprehensive overhaul of Japan’s energy policy according to a recent poll. Japan is already avowedly anti-nuclear in the area of the military, having voluntarily banned nuclear weapons from its territory since the 1950s, but many anti-nuclear groups have, until now, failed to equate the horrors of nuclear war with the peaceful development of nuclear power. Now, with the mayors of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki calling for a sea change in Japanese energy policy for the first time in decades, the Prime Minister himself is addressing Japan’s reliance on nuclear power before his political life draws to a close.

However, with nuclear power supplying about a third of Japan’s energy needs and the prospects of toughening economic times ahead, it is unclear exactly how any putative shift away from the atom might move forward without severe disruption to Japan’s infrastructure, to say nothing of the jobs that would be lost. As the U.S. and by extension the world brace for another possible recession, it would be a rude shock to the system for Japan to invalidate tens of thousands nuclear industry employees, particularly following the selfless heroism many of them displayed at the height of the crisis.

Yet, with popular anger on the rise, it is possible that even moves to establish an unprecedentedly high level of oversight of the nuclear industry will not placate the Japanese public, particularly as more details of the bureaucratic errors surrounding the catastrophe come to light.

The New York Times' recent report provides an example of such: the citizens of the town of Namie, close to the stricken Fukushima Daichi plant, are the latest to protest Tokyo’s handling of the disaster after they failed to receive any information on the dispersal of radiation, despite the accurate predictions from a government-commissioned computer scenario of radioactive release paths conducted far in advance of the meltdown. According to the town’s mayor, Tamotsu Baba, the failure to provide the scenario data to local residents lay with the unwillingness amongst senior officials to significantly enlarge the zone of the expensive and disruptive mass evacuations or to subject the Japan’s beleaguered nuclear industry to even harsher public scrutiny.

However, it is precisely the latter that the people seem to want. With the passing on August 3 of a law to allow the use of public funds to keep the operator of the Fukushima Daichi plant afloat, it is difficult to imagine that the Japanese populace will accept anything else. 

--Tobias Voss