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Will Fukushima Trigger the Changes Japan Has Been Waiting For?

Fukushima is not Chernobyl, Prime Minister Naoto Kan insists. His government draws comfort from the fact that Fukushima emitted only a fraction of the radiation released at Chernobyl in 1986, that Chernobyl caused a number of deaths and thousands of cancers. In Chernobyl, the exploding reactor threw radioactive material high into the atmosphere, spreading it over a wide area of Western Europe. In Fukushima, apart from the radioactivity released to the sea, the contamination is concentrated within some 400 square kilometers around the plant. Fukushima caused no deaths, at least not so far.

However, in some ways Fukushima looks more worrying than Chernobyl, and more hopeless.

Portrait of a pressure group: the nuclear village

The disaster at Chernobyl was triggered by a botched experiment to improve the reactor’s safety in case of an emergency shut-down. The disaster at Fukushima was triggered by a natural catastrophe, a tsunami, but it was allowed to happen, because Tepco, the plant’s operator, and subsequent Japanese governments ignored ample warnings, an earthquake or a tsunami of this magnitude might knock out the emergency back-up systems.

Tepco systematically violated safety rules. In more than 200 instances between 1977 and 2002, the utility submitted false data to the authorities, as stated by a commission of the Japanese parliament, the Diet. The nation’s nuclear safety authorities and government were complicit in Tepco’s blunders.

The Soviet Union was a system in decay, even before Chernobyl. To outside observers, it was no surprise when things went wrong. Japan sees herself at the pinnacle of technology, a major exporter of nuclear power. Despite the fact Japan’s nuclear industry has suffered a substantial number of accidents before, the country did not have any contingency plans to deal with a nuclear accident as it happened in Fukushima. Six days into the catastrophe, Japan had no idea how to get the plant under control. In a desperate attempt, seawater was dumped from a helicopter to cool spent nuclear fuel. Despite warnings, Tepco failed to prevent hydrogen-explosions.

Photo with thanks to daveeza
Japan, a nation proud of her safety standards and disaster preparedness, was totally unprepared for an accident that had been predicted by experts. The nation of the industrial robot did not have a single machine to mitigate the crisis. Japan has not learned anything from Chernobyl.

On March, 11, Japan suffered one of the strongest earthquakes in recorded history, followed by an enormous tsunami. The three nuclear power plants located on the coast hit by the tsunami withstood the tremor, but at Fukushima I the waves knocked out all cooling systems. Although it had been suggested to Tepco, there were no mobile cooling systems on stand-bye.

To make things worse, Tepco initially underestimated the developing crisis. Knowingly or not, the utility did not react with the urgency necessary. The Kan government trusted Tepco, and, according to Japanese press reports, rejected the first offers of foreign assistance, notably from the US to help cool the reactors. It might have been possible to prevent some or all of the four hydrogen-explosions that caused major damage to unit 1,2 and 4, blew off their roofs and splattered the plant with highly radioactive debris.

Radioactive debris
Photo with thanks to daveeza
Fukushima I was not designed to survive a tsunami, any surge of the seawater higher than 5.7 meters would have been fatal. However, the villages and fishing harbors nearby all had tsunami-barriers.

It has been estimated that the waves that hit the plant were about 14 meters high. In some areas further north, they reached 30 meters. Tepco, the Japanese nuclear watchdogs and government officials claim such a tsunami was beyond expectation. When driving along the devastated coast on a hilly road, however, one regularly crosses the line up to which the tsunami wrecked everything. Climbing on, a few meters above that line of destruction, one encounters a road sign, “End of Estimated Tsunami Inundation Area”. In some places, the water flooded these signs, but not by much, in many others, the tsunami did not reach as high as the sign. One can but conclude that Japan’s road bureau and the local authorities knew they had to expect a tsunami the heigth of March, 11, but not Tepco and the nuclear safety authorities.

As historic evidence shows, earthquakes of a similar magnitude struck this region in the years, 869, 1498, 1896 and 1933, causing tsunamis of a comparable strength. For the Jogan-earthquake in 869, Professor Koji Minoru of Tohoku University has shown with the help of sediments that in the Sendai area the tsunami reached 4 kilometers inland. The 1933 tsunami is still remembered by surviving witnesses, there are even historical film documents.

A few years ago, it had been discussed in a Diet commission if such historical evidence of major tsunamis should be taken into account for the safety guidelines for nuclear power plants. There cannot be any doubt that the government and Tepco were aware of the risk of a major earthquake and tsunami, but ignored them to cut costs. In 2006, the guidelines for the safety of nuclear power plants were revised, but their wording remained fuzzy, the threat of a tsunami is only mentioned at on the last two of some 140 pages. Before an earlier revision, Tepco had managed to postpone their implementation so that they would not be applicable for a unit then under construction.

The most detailed warning was made in 2008 by Kobe University’s Professor Katsuhiko Ishibashi. In front of a Diet commission, he drew a scenario of an earthquake knocking out all cooling systems of a nuclear power plant. This would be followed by hydrogen explosions and a massive release of radioactivity into the atmosphere, said Ishibashi. That is exactly what happened at Fukushima I. Only, Ishibashi developed his scenario for the plant in Hamaoka, west of Tokyo. Hamaoka is considered to be the most dangerous nuclear power station in Japan. With certain winds, Ishibashi said, Tokyo might become uninhabitable. Despite his insistence, the majority of Diet commission saw no need to act.

The “atomic village”, as the collusion of the nuclear industry, the nuclear watchdogs and the government has come to be called, didn’t want to hear any of it. “If you were criticizing nuclear power, you were treated as an enemy of the state”, former governor of Fukushima prefecture Eisaku Sato says. He ruled the stricken prefecture from 1988 to 2006, when he was arrested for corruption – on doctored evidence, as he claims.

With a number of lawsuits, concerned citizens tried to force the operators of Japan’s nuclear power plants to improve on their security standards, notably in Fukushima. One of these lawsuits is aimed at shutting down Chubu Electric’s Hamaoka plant, the one Ishibashi developed his scenario for.

As a witness of the defense, Haruki Madarame, then a professor at the University of Tokyo, said in court: “There needs to be a line drawn somewhere. It would be impossible to design a nuclear plant if engineers had to consider every single possibility.” Last year, the same Madarame was elected to chair Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission, the government’s highest body for the safety of nuclear power. Thus, the governments top expert for the safety of the nuclear plants is someone who in court said relative safety is good enough for nuclear power plants.

Japan has clearly accepted insufficient safety standards, and her nuclear authorities failed to to strictly enforce even those inadequate standards.

In Chernobyl, once the magnitude of the disaster had become obvious, the authorities acted with urgency. 36 hours after the explosion, within a period of 2 1/2 hours, they evacuated 49,000 people. In Japan, it took Prime Minister Naoto Kan more than 30 hours to declare a nuclear emergency. Only after four explosions and more than four days of disorientation, he subjected Tepco’s wanting crisis management to his direct control. It took Japan six days to effectively start cooling the reactors and the spent fuel.

For several weeks, the Japanese government refused to publish the results of SPPEDI, a computer program to determine its the effective contamination. The head of Japan’s weather service Hiroshi Niino feared, “this would cause a panic”, as he later said. When the data were finally out, the government failed to draw the obvious conclusion and adjust the zone of evacuation. Only a week after a recommendation from the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, it decided to do so. To this day, not all evacuation orders have been executed.

The earthquake and tsunami were natural disaster, the nuclear catastrophe could have been avoided. Tepco, Japan’s nuclear authorities and the government bear the responsibility for this calamity, particularly Japan’s previous governments. They allowed the “atomic village” to develop, a quagmire of corruption. The current government made things worse by reacting too slowly, and naively.

The clean, ignored alternatives

Japan has no alternative to nuclear energy, subsequent governments have been insisting for decades. Fact is, Japan has never seriously explored alternatives. Some Japanese companies produce world class generators for renewable power such as wind turbines and solar panels, but they sell them mostly abroad.

When the threat of CO2 to the planet’s climate materialized, Japan’s prime reaction was to redefine her nuclear program as “green”.

The main alternative to energy consumption is saving it. While Japan's industry achieves the highest efficiency in the world, the state, the service sector and the consumers are wasting electric power. Japan consumes about 15 percent more electricity per capita than Germany, a similarly industrialized country. Japanese houses, assembled from prefabricated parts, are hardly insulated at all. In winter, the Japanese are wasting electricity to keep warm, in summer, to keep them cool. In recent years, Tepco encouraged their customers to use more (nuclear) power, namely to switch from gas to electricity to increase the utility’s business.

The low quality of Japanese housing is often explained by high land prices. People who bought land do not have much money left for quality, they say. Japanese companies are manufacturing some of the best insulation windows worldwide, but almost exclusively for export.

The Japanese government justifies its prioritizing nuclear power because of its lack of oil. Japan’s substantial coal reserves are expensive to mine and in remote places. Some critics of Japan’s nuclear program stress further that, although Tokyo has no intention to acquire nuclear weapons, the possession of nuclear technology, especially its reprocessing facility, makes it a virtual member of the nuclear club.

Japan’s proponents of renewable energy believe the “atomic village” is deliberately obstructing hydro-, wind-, thermosolar-, photovoltaic- and geothermal energy.

Currently, about 2.5 percent of the worldwide electric energy is generated by wind-power, a number rapidly increasing. In Japan, a very windy country, the wind’s share is as low as 0.4 percent. To this day, the Japanese government has not adopted standards for wind power, as Eitaro Takayama of Mitsubishi Heavy, a producer of wind turbines, complained in Tokyo early this year.

Japanese companies such as Hitachi, Sharp and Sanyo were pioneering solar energy. In 1980, Japanese households had installed 2.8 million square meters of solar thermal panels. These are simple solar energy collectors used for heating water. By 2005, only a tenth of this capacity remained in place. Helped by the government, the utilities waged a price war against decentralized renewable power sources. They squeezed solar thermal energy generation out of the market. The Tokyo Institute for Sustainable Energy calls this a "political disaster".

In photovoltaic energy generation, solar panels that convert sunlight into electric power, Japan has lost its global leadership both in terms production and installation. In Europe, Japanese companies have been selling photovoltaic solar panels to retail customers for years, but not in Japan where feed-in-tariffs were abolished almost a decade ago (they were reintroduced recently).

Japan is a mountainous country. It has more than 3000 reservoirs, of which only a small fraction is used for hydroelectric power generation. The others were built for drinking water reserve and flood protection. An additional purpose of these dams was pork barrel politics, as is widely acknowledged today. The Liberal Democratic Party, LDP, that ruled Japan for 54 years, used to offer local construction companies large scale jobs. In turn, those companies secured the votes for the LDP to stay in power.

Many of these reservoirs could be used for small hydropower plants for local consumption. But Japanese bureaucrats favor grand solutions.

Japan has 108 active volcanoes, there are more than 10,000 so-called onsen, or hot springs. Geothermal Power is the most important untapped energy source in Japan. A geothermal power plant works just like an oil, coal, gas or nuclear power plant. It produces steam to drive turbines.

After the first oil crisis in 1973, geothermal power was proposed as the ideal solution for Japan, 19 stations were built. However, the government went for nuclear power.

Geothermal stations would be located near hot springs, and thus tourist spots, it argued. Additionally, it said, geothermal is too expensive. The “atomic village” killed this clean source of energy.

According to Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), a kilowatt hour (Kwh) of nuclear generated electricity costs about 5 US-cents, geothermal power is estimated at 11 US-cents. However, the price given by METI does not include the disposal of nuclear waste, and neither the cost of the clean up of Fukushima I, currently estimated at some 300 billion US-Dollars.

According to Tetsunari Iida of the Tokyo Institute for Sustainable Energy, METI refuses to release its basis for determining the price of nuclear power at some 5 cents per kwh. He therefore calls this price fiction.

Professor Hiroaki Niitsuma of Tohoku University, blamed the state for this clean energy’s demise. Keiji Miyazaki, Professor emeritus of Osaka University, a staunch supporter of nuclear power even after Fukushima, claimed recently that geothermal power plants smell bad. Fortunately for those poor people in Fukushima, radiation doesn’t smell.

The politics of nuclear absolutism

According to her constitution, Japan is a democracy. Eisako Sato, the aforementioned ex-governor of Fukushima prefecture, says, when it comes to nuclear power, “Japan is almost a fascist state.” Japan:s doctrine has been, “nuclear power is absolutely necessary for Japan, so it is absolutely safe”, he says. Because it is so important for the nation, Sato goes on, many officials thought it legitimate to cover up accidents and flaws. He calls that “Japan:s nuclear absolutism.”

Originally accepting nuclear power as a necessity, Sato became a critic after whistle-blowers revealed to him how much Tepco was violating safety rules and falsifying protocols. As a consequence, he withdrew his approval for Tepco to use MOX in Fukushima I, a dangerous mix of uranium-plutonium. After that, the prosecution office started to investigate him for corruption.

Behind the governor’s back, Tokyo sent a flock of nuclear missionaries to the 23,000 households around the Fukushima I plant. Their task was to convince the people that MOX was safe, despite what their governor said. These households are now evacuated.

Maybe Sato was corrupt. But if so, his was at most the petty corruption common among Japanese politicians. If all Japanese MPs guilty of this kind of corruption were banned from parliament, the hall would be half empty, it has been said. Japan’s prosecutors have a free hand to determine whom they prosecute and when; or to turn a blind eye. Thus, Sato’s allegation that he has been singled out for political reasons, namely his opposition to nuclear power, is at least plausible.

The “atomic village” stands for corruption on a much grander scale. The nuclear industry, scientists, bureaucrats and politicians have created a tight network of institutionalized and legitimized corruption. Reciprocity, a crucial point to prove corruption, is not required in the “atomic village”. Its members provide “the village” with construction jobs, research grants, promotions and votes, probably believing it is for the good of the nation. They don’t tolerate criticism. The leading media have been on good terms with this network. They have ignored the critics of nuclear power, including their many lawsuits against unsafe plants, including  Fukushima.

A crucial component of the “atomic village”, as of other tightly knit Japanese networks between politics and the private sector, is “amakudari”, literally “descent from heaven”. Japanese bureaucrats retire at the young age of 55. “Amakudari” is the institutionalized practice to help them join those companies and organizations they used to control before retirement. Thus, while still working for the government, they can expect to be rewarded in the future with the high pay of an adviser for smoothing a company’s dealings with the state. After switching side, they also use their connections and their intimate knowledge of the controlling authority to facilitate permission procedures for the company. This practice has been called the “hidden fabric of Japan’s Economy.” At the time of the Fukushima accident, two former bureaucrats were on the board of Tepco, and the former boss of the nuclear division of Tepco was rewarded by the LDP with a mandate in the Upper House of the Diet.


On top of this, there are the family networks. Many leading Japanese politicians are sons, son-in-laws, grandsons or nephews of top-politicians. They inherited their relatives’ constituencies, and also their networks.

Fukushima prefecture’s current governor, Yuhei Sato (he’s not related to his predecessor) is a nephew Kozo Watanabe, one of the surviving grand old men of Japanese politics. The only job Watanabe never held was Prime Minister, as they say. An MP for Fukushima since 1969, Watanabe was once an independent, then a member of the LDP; now he’s a crucial actor in PM Kan’s DPJ. He is on the record saying nuclear power allows the people to live longer, because it has helped Japan solve its energy problem.

After taking office, Yuhei Sato re-approved the use of MOX at Fukushima I. As a direct consequence of this decision, there were now traces of Plutonium contamination around the plant.

Most of Japan’s nuclear power plants are clustered on remote coastlines in poor prefectures. Tokyo gets the power, the people in Fukushima the problems, one can hear these days. Former governor Eisaku Sato stresses, in Japan, decision are made from top down, from Tokyo to the provinces. However, there’s another side to this equation.

One of the main architects of the “atomic village” was Kakuei Tanaka, PM from 1972-1974, and one of the most powerful men in postwar Japan. Under his premiership, Japan declared nuclear power to be a top priority.

A farmer’s son from rural Niigata, Tanaka served in the Japanese army in Manchuria. There he made his first contacts with the group that was to lead Japan’s post war economy. In hindsight, the command economy Japan imposed on Manchuria, de facto a Japanese colony, served as a laboratory for Japan’s reconstruction. Back in Tokyo, Tanaka married the heiress of a construction company and went into politics, thus becoming part of both sides of the corruption, almost an incarnation of it.

Not only did Tanaka try to get as many construction jobs for his company, but also for his prefecture Niigata. This would help him get reelected, and improve his and his prefecture’s standing in Tokyo. He managed to get his remote province connected to the national highway system and the bullet-train network long before bigger cities. The biggest price, construction work for more than a decade, was erected literally at the doorstep of his birthplace: the world’s largest nuclear power plant, Kashikawazaki-Kariwa.

When he was a member of the LDP, Kozo Watanabe belonged to Tanaka’s faction. Just like his mentor, he helped bring nuclear power plants to his own prefecture, Fukushima.

In the Soviet Union, the communist party was ubiquitous. To ensure loyalty to the party, it sent a representative into every institution, the party secretary. Their second task was to keep the government informed about the needs and achievements of their enterprise. Japanese networking, namely amakudari, other mutual dependencies and the family ties, do the same trick. In its heyday, the LDP was almost as ubiquitous as the CPSU in the Soviet Union.

Chernobyl forced the Soviet authorities to their first steps of glasnost, or openness. Late in 1986, a local youth newspaper in the then Soviet republic of Estonia dodged censorship and published a story of young Estonian liquidators who were exposed to high dosages of radiation. This was the beginning of the liberalization of the Soviet media. Thus, Chernobyl can be considered as one of the starting points to the process that finally led to the collapse of communism.

Just as with the Soviet Union at the time, Japan needs fundamental reforms. For two decades, Japanese politics have been stagnant and petrified. Some academics see the nuclear power plants as monuments of Japanese corruption.

Other than the Soviet Union, however, Japan is an open society with free elections that respects human rights. All the levers for reform should be in place.


Will Fukushima trigger the changes Japan has been waiting for? In the Soviet Union, well educated people had lost faith in a system that lied to them and failed to provide them with their daily needs, enough milk or toilet paper. They helped to topple the government, and the system.

Japan’s is still an affluent society, the new poverty that emerged in the last decade is hard to discern, since it is marginalized to the provinces and to the fringes of society. The urban middle class still has a very good life, it has too much to lose to ask for change. In their eyes, the Tohoku region hit by the earthquake, the tsunami and the radiation crisis, is a remote place. The media is already stepping back from the more controversial position it adapted at the culmination of the crisis. The government is preoccupied with fighting assessments of Fukushima I that differ from its own. It calls these “harmful rumors”. And the opposition is back to its petty bickering.

There is no Japanese Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, Andrey Sakharov, not even a Mikhail Gorbachev, no moral authority and no politician who could lead the nation to reforming itself, and not much can be expected from a government that barely manages to survive. Thus, Fukushima, unlike Chernobyl, looks unlikely to set off the chain reaction of reform that would be the only good to come of it.

By. Christoph Neidhart

Christoph Neidhart is a Swiss writer and journalist based in Tokyo where he is German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung bureau chief.

Source: Open Democracy

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  • Anonymous on May 07 2011 said:
    I told some people recently that there is one country that will NEVER give up nuclear energy. That country is Japan.Many years ago I walked through Vienna with some sort of quiet Japanese insider, and when I told him that I once had a girl friend who lived in Vienna, he couldn't stop talking. You see Maria and myself - or whatever her name was - were an item probably twenty years earlier, or more, but in his mind the key thing was to look her up and get her on the telephone to her lady friends, whom he obviously wanted to meet.One of the things this man said to me was that the Japanese were not particularly interested in light water fission equipment. What they wanted were Breeders. That was what they wanted, and that is what they will have some day.As for the ultimate logic of your discussion, the renouncing of nuclear, there is no ultimate logic. It's a misunderstanding on your part author.
  • Anonymous on May 08 2011 said:
    Wind- and solarpower take up more land than Japan has available. A 1000MW farm take up 50 square kilometers of land, so replacing Japan's nuclear power fleet with such a power source would require 50% of the country's total landarea. As a result, the objective of doubling their nuclear power output by 2030 is an impossible equation to solve by replacing nuclear with solar/wind.Geothermal looks like a good power source. It has, however, shown indications of triggering earthquakes, so it needs more research.

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