Japan and Its National Emergency: Preliminary Lessons from the Fukushima Nuclear Catastrophe

          Eleven days have passed since March 11, 2011, when a gigantic earthquake measured at 9.0 erupted off the Sanriku ("Tsunami coast") of northeastern Japan, triggering waves that rushed inland killing more than 8,000 people by the official underestimate, leaving nearly 13,000 others reportedly missing, and reeking incalculable physical damage in the small prefectures of Fukushima, Iwate, and Miyagi, whose capital city, Sendai, suffered heavy losses. An estimated 392,000 people, many of them elderly, have been forced to evacuate their homes and are living in emergency shelters, many of them without heat and with limited food. Toxic iodine and cesium have reportedly contaminated farmland, water, and the sea in areas surrounding Fukushima, home of one of Japan's largest nuclear power plant complexes. The nation's rail lines, power grid, and automobile factories have been deeply impacted. Rolling blackouts disrupt life in the capital. Japan, forced to mobilize 100,000 troops, faces a humanitarian and economic crisis on a scale not seen since the end of World War II.[1]

          Behind the tragedy we see on our television screens and on-line lies a deeper one. Japan's embrace of nuclear energy and its investment in a privately owned nuclear power industry long ago set it on a path of ever rising risks to its own people. Its more recent embrace of neo-liberal economic policies of cost-saving and de-regulation has now proven more costly to every sector of its economy than if it had invested in alternatives to nuclear power.

          The tsunami that followed the March 11 earthquake knocked out power at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex, leading to partial core meltdowns and fires affecting all six of its water-logged reactors. Although the wave was an unavoidable, inevitable natural disaster, the nuclear reactor catastrophe was entirely man-made, big business-and-government-determined. Just the year before, according to investigative journalist Hirose Takashi, Tokyo Electric Power or Tepco announced that the plant's very old reactor unit No. 1 in Fukushima, built in 1971, was turning forty but would keep operating — and might run for another twenty years. Japan's Atomic Energy Agency soon announced its intention to keep old reactors in service in other prefectures.[2]

          How could the nation that had experienced the American atomic destruction of two of its cities — surely one of the most criminal acts in recorded history — have allowed a man-made nuclear radiation catastrophe to occur on its soil? Who was responsible if not the private and profitable electrical power company that owned and operated the Fukushima plant? Tepco had situated the reactor complex near the famous Futaba fault, "the least earthquake-sustainable part of Japan's entire tsunami coastline," according to Hirose. It is the same region where tsunami of 8.2 meters, 24.4 meters, and 14.6 meters were recorded little more than a century ago?[3]

          Why, we may also ask, have American mainstream news outlets focused not on Tepco or on Japan's nuclear power industry and its collusion with government regulators but rather on the "uniqueness" of the Japanese response to the crisis? In the U.S. we read about the docility of the Japanese people, their patience as they wait in line for food and water — presumably instead of rioting, as might happen in the U.S. Never a word is said about how Japanese "patience" might have something to do with Japan being, despite its growing economic inequalities a far more egalitarian society than the U.S. with its huge underclass of highly exploited and oppressed people.

          We also hear of the grass-roots initiatives among the Japanese in the northeast as they struggle to cope with disaster — this in contrast to the ineptness of Japanese officials who initially appeared uninformed about what was happening at the Fukushima nuclear plant complex. Frustrated American journalists, tethered of necessity to their Japanese interpreters, seem uninterested in going back in time and casting this turning-point in its broader historical context. They criticize the Japanese government for not having told them everything — as if in the American national security state transparency and accountability were anything like the norm. As for American journalists criticizing their Japanese counterparts for having "cozy ties with officials" and shielding them from criticisms — that is surely the pot calling the kettle black.[4]

          Several background features of the current crisis are worth noting. Sixty-six year ago there emerged, among post-surrender elites planning for Japan's economic reconstruction, a consensus that the country's scientific backwardness and lack of national power had been a major cause of its military defeat. Overcoming this weakness became a national goal, entrusted to Japanese bureaucrats — an elite that had experienced selective postwar purges but, as a whole, was never reformed. This meant that the old attitude — officials know best whereas ordinary people have only their "common sense" on which to rely and thus are to be despised — remained.

          This outlook, we ought to note, is universally shared by bureaucrats in the U.S., Europe, and Asia and by CEOs of private corporations around the world. When in 1949 the U.S. Occupation finally lifted censorship on Japanese reporting about the effects of lethal doses of radiation on the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the paternalistic mindset kicked in, contributing to Japanese officialdom's irritation at the spread of a general anti-nuclear discourse, which developed fulsomely over the following decade.

          In their attempts to contain the anti-nuclear movement centered on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, conservative governments attacked the left-dominated labor movement and cultivated a split in the anti-nuclear movement. Seizing the moment created by the outbreak of war in Korea in June 1950, the conservatives, even before they had joined to form the Liberal Democratic Party, chose as their national goal to make Japan a great commercial nation, dependent economically and strategically on the United States. Of this came a serious problem: The U.S. was totally committed to building nuclear weapons and threatening other nations with their use, while the Japanese public's fear of hazardous nuclear radiation could only be contained but never extinguished.

          President Eisenhower's "atoms for peace" program, announced to the world in December 1953, helped Japan's political elites to paper over this problem. Japanese officialdom soon developed an official discourse that drew a line between radiation deaths from acts of war and the radiation dangers to human life, mental health, and the environment that could be safely controlled within nuclear reactors, built to produce steam that rotates turbines to generate electricity.

          Over time, of course, memory of the war ebbed; securing electric energy by building nuclear reactors became normal policy; and the majority of Japanese succumbed to the fiction that radiation emissions from nuclear power plants could be prevented with certainty. Discounted was the fact that all technology can fail; and the increasingly complex technology of nuclear reactors made them especially unsafe. To say — post Chernobyl 1986 and now post-Fukushima 2011 — that every nuclear power plant is a potential nuclear bomb waiting to explode is hardly an exaggeration.

          From 1953 to 1956 Japanese scientists embarked on a program of nuclear energy research while decision-makers in Tokyo enacted a legal framework for the building of a nuclear power industry. The Diet, Japan's legislature, passed an Atomic Energy Basic Law; an Atomic Energy Commission was established along with a corporation to develop nuclear fuel.[5]

          The United States had taken the lead but Japan and many other countries went in the same direction at the same time. Their energy firms began to seek the mastery of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes and, in the process, forged economic links with the energy industry and its lobbyists in the U.S. Moreover, Japanese elites used the same arguments as other countries to sell the public on the alleged benefits of civilian nuclear power: It would help fight pollution, reduce Japan's dependency on foreign oil, and thus promote the nation's security while strengthening ties to the U.S.

          Meanwhile, starting in the Nixon-Ford years and continuing under Democratic Party President Jimmy Carter, administrations in the U.S, actively promoted the "peaceful uses of nuclear energy." As opposition to nuclear power construction in California grew, GE and Westinghouse turned to Washington for help in flogging their technology abroad. Technology tie-ups and joint research projects flourished. Japan imported its first, GE-built, nuclear plant from Britain in 1966. A few years later Prime Minister Sato Eisaku declared in the Diet that Japan would pour its energies into nuclear arms reduction.[6]

          What Sato and subsequent LDP governments were actually promoting was Japanese construction of nuclear plants based on badly designed American models such as the Mark 1 reactors that do not allow for emergency venting of hydrogen gas from containment buildings. Such reactors also feature, at higher levels within the buildings, huge tanks of water, called "ponds," for holding the reactors' spent but still highly radioactive, zirconium-clad, fuel rods. If water levels decrease, the ponds become highly flammable as happened at Fukushima. And in some reactors the back-up diesel generators, which would come into use during an emergency, were located in the basement of the containment building, where they could be easily knocked out in a massive earthquake or tsunami — again as happened at Fukushima.

          The "oil shocks" of the 1970s hastened Japan's drive for energy diversification with the aim of reducing the country's dependency on imported oil. During the stable growth period of the 1970s and 1980s, Tepco grew to become one of the world's largest privately-owned utilities, a vertically integrated, self-regulating, regional monopoly that functioned as an adjunct of the Japanese state.[7] Meanwhile in the U.S. plans for building nuclear reactors along the California coast and near water sources in the sun-belt states of the southwest proceeded apace.

          But a new factor entered this picture around the mid-1980s, when the Japanese government moved to a new model of economic development and began to implement neo-liberal economic policies that tilted (as elsewhere) toward the de-regulation of the energy industry with the aim of lowering electrical costs. These policies strengthened the monopolistic powers of the nine privately-owned Japanese power companies — actually independent fiefdoms that controlled "the generation, transmission, and distribution of electric power throughout the country."[8] They also led to lax safety and environmental standards. Safety violations accumulated but were concealed as government agencies colluded with private utilities to keep the companies profitable. At the same time (and not coincidentally) there occurred in the post-Cold War-era, dawning in the 1990s, a string of serious nuclear accidents. The most notable were Monju (1995), Tokaimura (1999), Hamaoka (2001, 2005), and Kashiwazaki-Kariwa (2007), where an earthquake caused massive fire-damage to the Tepco plant, leading to radioactive discharges into the atmosphere and sea.

          On each occasion Japanese bureaucrats, politicians, and operators of the nuclear facilities responded just as their American counterparts had in March 1979 when a partial core-meltdown occurred in a reactor at the nuclear power generating plant at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The operator of the TMI facility, Metropolitan Edison Company, owned by General Public Utilities, covered-up, put out conflicting information, and lied to the public that everything was under control when, in fact, it was not.

          Fortunately, in this accident, no lives were lost but the U.S. Nuclear regulatory Commission recommended the evacuation of people living within a ten-mile radius of TMI. An estimated 144,000 people left their homes, the clean-up took eleven years, cost a billion dollars, and the impact of the crisis continues to be evident.[9]The response of the NRC, which continues to shill for the power companies, was inept. In the end, the public lost trust in both Metropolitan Edison, on whom they depended for information, and government experts who often disagreed on what had been happening at Three Mile Island. Nonetheless, the U.S. civilian nuclear industry weathered the ensuing storm of public criticism and went on to regulate itself as it had been doing before TMI.

          The accident at the nuclear power plant near Chernobyl in the Ukraine was far more catastrophic than TMI and spread radioactivity around the earth. As to the Japanese case, the national crisis produced by the partial meltdowns of reactor fuels, hydrogen explosions, and loss of containment buildings at Fukushima place it closer to Chernobyl than TMI.[10] This holds true despite the fact that the Chernobyl reactor had no containment box and its design flaws differed from those of the Fukushima reactor.

          Two other features in the background to the current nuclear crisis in Japan should be mentioned. One is the resistance that big business mounts against anti-nuclear activists, environmentalists, and scientists who organize opposition to nuclear power plants throughout the Japanese archipelago. Japanese whistle-blowers like the seismology professor Ishibashi Katsuhiko, and anti-nuclear activists repeatedly called attention to "falsified safety reports, fatal accidents and underestimated earthquake risk."[11] He and other industry critics were ignored. The other concerns the political dynamic in sparsely populated coastal regions, inhabited by mostly elderly people. Local officials need the jobs and the money that the government and power companies can bring to their communities and often find it hard to resist their will.

          Finally, the dynamics that led to the nuclear tragedy in Japan are at work in this country, where twenty-three of the same type reactors as at Fukushima are in operation, including the Indian Point nuclear plant in New Jersey, which produces electricity for New York City. Aged plants also operate near earthquake fault lines in California at Diablo Canyon and San Onofre. Under Japanese law, plant operators like Tepco bear liability for damages caused by nuclear power accidents; here in the U.S., where operator and owner liability is negligible and the nuclear industry can spend virtually without limit on PR campaigns to promote its "safe energy," taxpayers foot the bill.[12]

          As we watch the television footage from Fukushima, we are looking at our own legacy. Perhaps the time has come to gradually phase out civilian nuclear power altogether and take the path of countries like Germany and China that are gradually shifting to safer, renewable forms of energy such as solar, wind, and bio-fuels. For Japan to remain the world's third largest economy, Tepco and the politicians must quickly rethink their plans to build "9 new nuclear plants by 2020 and at least 14 by 2030."[13] The status quo, based on getting more than 30 percent of the nation's electricity from nuclear reactors, is no longer possible.



[1] "Reports from the Tohoku" by Matthew Penney, posted March 20, 2011, at japanfocus.org and Gavan McCormack, "Japan's Nuclear Crisis: A Wakeup Call for the World," March 14, 2011, at japanfocus.org.

[2] Hirose Takashi,"Hakyoku wa sakerareru ka — Fukushima genpatsu jiko no shiinso," Diamond on line, Tokubetsu repooto, No. 140, posted March 16, 2011. GE built Fukushima Dai-Ichi's No 1, 2, and 6 reactors; Toshiba Corporation built No. 3 and 5; and Hitachi-GE Nuclear Energy Ltd, built No. 4, according to Bloomberg, "Japan Nuclear Disaster Caps Decades of Faked Reports, Accidents," posted March 17, 2011.

[3] Hirose Takashi, op. cit.

[4] Norimitsu Onishi, "Japan Offers Little Response to U.S. Assessment," New York Times, posted March 17, 2011.

[5] National Energy Policy: Japan (2004). In Encyclopedia of Energy.

[6] Tsuru Shigeto, Nichi-Bei anpo kaisho e no michi (Iwanami Shinsho, 1996), p. 53.

[7] Hirose Takashi, op. cit.

[8] National Energy Policy: Japan (2004), p. 4 of 11.

[9] Robert Emmet Hernan, This Borrowed Earth: Lessons From the Fifteen Worst Environmental Disaster Around the World (Palgrave MacMillan, 2010), pp. 84-88; Peter S. Houts, Paul D. Cleary, Teh-Wei Hu, The Three Mile Island Crisis: Psychological, Social, and Economic Impacts on the Surrounding Population (Penn. State Univ. Press, 1988), pp. 95, 99-100.

[10] Yoshie Furuhashi, "An Appeal to All foreign Embassy Personnel and International Media Present in Japan, regarding the Nuclear Disaster," posted March 15, 2011.

[11] Bloomberg, "Japan Nuclear Disaster Caps Decades of Faked Reports, Accidents," posted March 17, 2011.

[12] Dave Lindoff, "The Idiocy and Hubris of Engineers: Will GE Get Whacked for the Catastrophic Failure of its Nuke Plants in Fukushima?" ThisCantBeHappening, posted March 15, 2011.

[13] Andrew DeWit, "The Earthquake in Japanese Energy Policy," p. 2 of 10, posted at japanfocus.

Herbert P. Bix, a Japan historian and author of Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, writes on problems of war and foreign policy.

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