Tokyo Notes

Japan’s Safe Nuclear Myth

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Tokyo Notes

Japan’s Safe Nuclear Myth

The crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant and radiation fears have blown a hole in the idea nuclear energy works in Japan.

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.