23 Juillet 2012
The much-criticized government-hosted public hearings on energy policy do have their merits. They have managed to draw admissions from utility officials defending nuclear power, which has in turn triggered protest from anti-nuclear blocs, encouraging further debate.
Apparently, the government plans to prohibit power company employees from speaking at public hearings from here on forward. But what would be far more constructive than across-the-board restrictions would be to closely review the content of the remarks made by utility employees.
At public hearings held last week in Sendai and Nagoya, a ruckus ensued when members of the public objected to employees from Tohoku Electric Power Co. and Chubu Electric Power Co., respectively, being given the opportunity to speak.
Tohoku Electric received 100 complaints via phone and e-mail after a ranking official voiced a pro-nuclear position, while Chubu Electric received 802 after one of its employees likewise expressed pro-nuclear views. Chubu Electric subsequently posted an apology on its website.
So what was the comment made by Chubu Electric's nuclear energy division head that drew such ire from the public?
"(In the case of Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant disaster), no one has died from any direct effects of radiation. I don't think this situation will have changed five or 10 years from now. This is an indisputable fact, based on epidemiological data."
Such remarks and criticisms against such remarks have emerged repeatedly since last year. Indeed, there have been no deaths as a direct result of radiation exposure. But the statistics cannot be used to draw the conclusion that there are and will be no impact of internal exposure to radiation.
In the introduction to the latest edition of his book, "Chernobyl Shinryo-ki" (Records of my Chernobyl medical practice), Akira Sugenoya, the mayor of the Nagano prefectural city of Matsumoto and a surgeon who treated thyroid cancer patients in Belarus, writes: "The fatality rate may not have been high statistically, but in reality, there were children suffering from illness, and some who even lost their lives to it. ... Armchair analysis does not get at the pain of losing lives."
Of the government's public hearings in 11 cities, those in five have already been held. They are broadcast live on the Internet, and video footage is uploaded on the website of the government's National Policy Unit (NPU). Few people seem to be accessing them, however, and it's not surprising. The first half of the hearings are comprised of comments from the NPU minister and bureaucrats, and the meetings in general do not proceed smoothly.
However, following the video footage allows us to pick up pieces of the bigger picture that fail to make media reports. As it turns out, the Chubu Electric employee's comment was a part of his bigger message that happiness cannot exist without economic growth.
Among the other comments he made include: "What is the real damage sustained from the Fukushima crisis? I think it's the instances of economic repercussions on people's safety and lives, including loss of homes and jobs from the designation of no-go zones, and consumers' rejection of agricultural products due to the establishment of excessive safety standards."
He also said: "I believe that if the economy tanks, and corporations lose their global competitiveness, we will experience a crisis that far exceeds the one in Fukushima."
Hats off to the man, who, amid a public backlash, expressed his beliefs with his face and name exposed. But his argument that a bigger tragedy awaits if Japan does not operate its nuclear plants is going too far. The conviction that everything will fall into place as long as the money keeps flowing, is questionable. As for the notion that happiness is impossible without economic growth, it's probably shared by the establishments of all major economies.
Meanwhile, many of the opinions put forth by members of the public who participated in the hearings flew in the face of such a "happiness theory."
"Why is economic growth a given? Why, when our population is on its way to decline, and our working population is set to shrink even more rapidly, do we need to increase the products and services available in the country? Is a society of mass consumption and mass production -- in which what we want at any given time is available everywhere -- a society of spiritual wealth?" a university student from Tokyo at the Nagoya hearing said to applause.
Do we choose denuclearization over economic growth, or economic growth over denuclearization? Does it all boil down to money, or does it not? The debate over what constitutes true happiness is undoubtedly a demand made on us by history. (By Takao Yamada, Senior Expert Writer)