Japan's Safe Nuclear Myth
Image Credit: Hirorinmasa

Japan's Safe Nuclear Myth


The devastating earthquake that hit Japan on March 11, combined with the massive tsunami, wrecked the once picturesque northeast coast of Japan's main island, claiming potentially tens of thousands of lives and creating hundreds of thousands of refugees in the process.

Along this stretch of destruction sit four nuclear power stations, comprising a total of 15 reactors, within a distance of about 200 kilometres of each other. 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, Japan's largest power company, proudly boasted of the robustness of the containment vessels of these reactors, claiming that they were made utilizing the same technology originally developed for the main battery of the iconic battleship Yamato—the pride of the Japanese Imperial Navy. TEPCO claimed that the nuclear reactors would safely stop, then automatically cool down and tightly contain radiation, in the event of an earthquake, and that there would therefore be no danger that an earthquake would cause any serious nuclear accident.

The vulnerability of nuclear reactors to earthquakes was already evident, however, after TEPCO's Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant on the northwest coast suffered several malfunctions, including a fire in a transformer and a small radiation leak into the ocean, following a magnitude 6.8 earthquake that hit the region in July 2007. Despite this serious accident, TEPCO officials still arrogantly boasted of their world-beating nuclear power technology.

They're not boasting anymore. Immediately after the earthquake violently shook Fukushima and a tsunami damaged many of the power station’s buildings, the myth of the safe and durable reactor—a myth promulgated by TEPCO—was shattered. It also called into question the entire strategy under which nuclear plants account for 30 percent of the country's electric power.

What went wrong with Japan's nuclear industry? The Japanese are often said to be hypersensitive about nuclear issues because of their 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 and by the end of that year, 140,000 residents of the 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’s 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 weapons campaign. Despite this, however, many A-bomb survivors and anti-nuclear weapon activists have so far been indifferent to the nuclear energy issue. Despite a number of vibrant local movements contesting the construction of nuclear plants, anti-nuclear energy campaigners overall have long been marginalized.

There are numerous reasons for this peculiar dichotomy in the antinuclear movement in Japan. One reason is that postwar Japanese governments strongly promoted nuclear science, particularly after US President Dwight D. Eisenhower began emphasizing the ‘atoms for peace’ programme in 1953. The strong feeling in Tokyo, among politicians and scientists alike, was that Japan had neglected scientific research during the war. Indeed, many believed their nation was defeated in World War II by US 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, led to Japan's embrace of nuclear energy. Particularly since the late 1960s, the Japanese government has indulged in pork barrel policies to secure the approval of local communities in remote areas for the construction of nuclear power plants in their backyards. It 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 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.

Although for a short period following the Chernobyl accident Japan's anti-nuclear power movement enjoyed nationwide popular support, it quickly faded following campaigns by the government and the power companies. Despite many accidents since, their seriousness was effectively covered up by altering 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.

The anti-nuclear movement has been warning of the dangers of a devastating nuclear accident for years, but this has always been met with assurances of the safety of the reactors by electric power companies and the government. The Fukushima accident has brought to fruition all the fears and predictions previously expressed.

Australia and Canada are the two largest uranium suppliers for Japan. Thirty-three percent of Japan's uranium imports come from Australia and 27 percent from Canada. Australia is faced with the decision of whether to continue exporting uranium even as some politicians insist that it can’t afford to risk the introduction of nuclear power. But surely it’s hypocritical to seek to avoid the dangers at home, while benefitting from the export of the cause of this disaster. In the same vein, these politicians advocate the need to abolish nuclear weapons, but refuse to ban the mining of uranium.

Japan isn’t the sole nation responsible for the current nuclear disaster. From the manufacture of the reactors by GE to provision of uranium by Canada, Australia and others, many nations are implicated. We all should learn from this tragic accident that human beings can’t co-exist with nuclear power, whether in the form of weapons or electricity. The risks and the costs—not only of actual nuclear accidents, but of the still unresolved problems of disposal and the damage to the environment—are just too high.

This catastrophic event could potentially be the catalyst needed to drastically reform Japan's existing socio-economic structure and way of living. It could even provide the wake-up call and opportunity to redirect the nation on a new course that emphasizes green energy development. In the same way that Japan's unique ‘peace constitution’ evolved from the ruins of World War II, this calamity could be used to initiate a hitherto impossible environmentally harmonious society.

Of course, such an optimistic outcome will depend not just on the determination and actions of the Japanese people, but the whole-hearted assistance of those abroad as well.

(This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared at Japan Focus here.)

Yuki Tanaka is Research Professor at the Hiroshima Peace Institute and a coordinator of The Asia-Pacific Journal. 

April 7, 2011 at 14:06

Was there KI distribuition after the first day March 13?
Did children need to take KI?

On the other hand
March 28, 2011 at 21:29

“…human beings can’t co-exist with nuclear power, whether in the form of weapons or electricity.”

This in particular, and the particle as a whole, is a prime example of the wrong lessons to draw from this still-ongoing tragedy. As it is still ongoing, it is too early to say– but certainly, it seems like “…all the fears and predictions…” have not come to pass. A full meltdown was avoided by layers of safety procedures that worked correctly, and no extremely dangerous amounts of radiation have made it outside of the evacuation zone. This is not to belittle the sacrifice of the engineers still working to contain the disaster, which may end up paying for their heroism with their lives. This is undoubtedly a terrible scenario; it is, though, not the worst-case scenario.

To let this end all usage of nuclear power would throw the proverbial baby out with the radioactive bathwater. Nuclear power IS a “green technology,” and is the only non-greenhouse-releasing form of power generation that works regardless of the vicissitudes of the weather. The article demonstrates a good grasp of the political and economic problems that definitely do deserve a second look, but a shaky understanding of the underlying science. Breaking up the collusion between government and business in the operation of this technology is essential. This does not mean that a world in which humankind harnesses this green, sustainable energy without significant risk is impossible. The next generation of nuclear power, still in the design phase (with some prototypes under construction in China), has several options that are inherently safe (a failure of the active pumping systems simply causes the reaction to stop, rather than intensify). Some even use the depleted fuel of the now-outdated reactor designs–the disposal of these materials is the primary problem of the current generation of reactors, and right now the biggest remaining danger at Fukushima No. 1 is the pools of spent rods that no-one had yet figured out what to do with.

Conflating weapons and reactors is disingenuous. The chemical reactions that powered the incendiary bombs that devastated many Japanese cities in the war and killed as many (if not more) civilians than nuclear bombs are the very same ones that occur inside any car or oil-burning power plant. Is this a reason to discourage those useful technologies? It is true that nuclear power requires far less fuel for far greater effect; it is that very fact that makes it an excellent candidate to supply our boundless energy needs without destroying our planet or ourselves. It also requires the separation of government and industry to ensure that it is being used safely. It does not require a total retreat from usage of this natural phenomenon.

Japan’s options when it comes to power generation are extremely few. To disqualify an entire form of power because of the confluence of an aging design (it had been meant to be retired this February, but was greenlighted to continue on) and an unprecedentedly huge natural disaster is folly. To declare ourselves done with nuclear power, preventing the production of already-designed-and-theoretically-proven next generation reactors (which not only are safe, but actively use the radioactivity of our problematic and already-extant spent fuel), instead investing heavily in other, unproven fields for which real capabilities of nationwide-scale power production are still decades of hypothetical research away, is folly.

March 28, 2011 at 21:27

I would not categorize myself as being inherent;y pro-nuclear, and I agree that the costs to nuclear energy (especially the issue of nuclear waste material)should lead to a reduction in reactor construction. However, taken as a whole, the nuclear energy industry has been arguably less harmful to the environment, and to people’s health, than the oil or coal energy industries.

Furthermore, there simply aren’t many methods of generating large amounts of energy. Countries essentially have four main types: Thermo (coal, natural gas, or oil) power plants, hydro-electrical plants, nuclear plants, and wind/solar. It is unrealistic to power a country on wind/solar, the infrastructure costs are simply too high. Powering a country on thermo causes massive air pollution not to mention climate change. Hydroelectricity requires the building of dams,
controversial to say the least. So while nuclear energy may have its faults, they are no more and no less prohibitive than any other source of energy.

The existence of nuclear weapons is a totally separate issue, which has more to do with geopolitics than with energy policy.

March 26, 2011 at 01:54

TEPCO wasn’t entirely incorrect about their plant’s ability to withstand earthquakes – the reactor weathered the tremor quite well, with everything shutting down as expected. It was the tsunami that damaged everything. Factor in that this earthquake and tsunami was bigger than anybody expected or had planned for, and it’s not surprising.

If anyone speaks in absolutes, it’s easy – and inflammatory – to make them look arrogant and unintelligent when something eventually goes wrong. The reality, though: it was far safer to be inside this power plant when the quake and tsunami hit than it was to be anywhere in the surrounding vicinity.

Share your thoughts

Your Name
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief