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Japan's "nightmare"

Two recent articles by William Pesek . (Bloomberg)

William Pesek is based in Tokyo and writes on economics, markets and politics throughout the Asia-Pacific region. 



 August 12, 2013


Abe’s Japan Is Blind to Scary Nuclear Reality



By William Pesek Aug 12, 2013 11:00 PM GMT+0200

Forget Abenomics. Ignore Shinzo Abe’s efforts to rejuvenate Japan’s diplomatic and military clout. Look past the quest to rewrite the constitution. History will judge this prime minister by one thing alone: what he did, or didn’t do, to end the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl.

It’s mind-boggling how disengaged Japan’s leaders have been since their “BP moment” -- the March 2011 near-meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant. Abe’s predecessors Naoto Kan and Yoshihiko Noda virtually ignored the radiation leaks and spent fuel rods sitting 135 miles (217 kilometers) from Tokyo. In December, Abe became the third prime minister to pretend all was well at Fukushima after a devastating earthquake and tsunami that flooded the plant.

The official line on Fukushima is depressingly familiar: The folks at Greenpeace International are trouble makers bent on scaring Japanese; the alarmists at the World Health Organization should mind their own business; the international news media needs to discover decaffeinated coffee. Nuclear power is clean, safe and -- most important, now that a weakened yen has driven up energy bills -- cheap.

Reality made an inconvenient reappearance last week. Mounting evidence that radioactive groundwater is gushing into the Pacific Ocean forced Abe to admit that plant owner TokyoElectric Power Co. Inc. isn’t up to the task of containing the disaster. Under international pressure, he pledged the government would “make sure there is a swift and multifaceted approach in place” to stop the leak.

Abe’s Seriousness

Pardon me for doubting Abe’s seriousness. It’s not just the sketchiness of the suggested remedy: freezing the ground around Fukushima, a tactic scientists fear will prove inadequate. It’s not the fact that nuclear regulators remain more focused on restarting reactors than on neutralizing the one that’s polluting North Asia. It’s not that no one at Tepco has gone to jail or been shamed. (BP Plc’s former chief executive officer, Tony Hayward, was fired and sued over the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.) Tepco is leaking something far worse and lying through its teeth. Yet it hasn’t been nationalized, and its executives remain in their offices.

No, my real worry is that official Japan is still stuck on “how” Fukushima become synonymous with Chernobyl, not “why” it happened or “what” it means for the world.

The “how” is the stuff of the gods, according to conventional wisdom. The event Japanese call 3/11 was an act of the heavens that no one could have foreseen. There was no way to plan for it, no way Tepco could have known not to place all of its backup generators in the same place underground, just steps away from the sea in a tsunami-prone nation.

This storyline ignores the “why.” Fukushima was a preventable, man-made disaster stemming from the worst conformist tendencies of Japan Inc. Look, if executives got together globally and created a Hall of Shame for the greedy, corrupt and clueless along them, Tepco would deserve its own wing. All Enron Corp. and Bernie Madoff did was manufacture fake profits. Tepco fudged its safety record and put the lives of tens of millions of people at risk.

But it takes a village to breed such a corrupt and dangerous system. Tepco got away with its negligence for years because of the cozy ties between power companies and the regulators, bureaucrats and researchers that champion the industry -- the “nuclear village.” Backed by its connections, money and control of the media, Tepco has brazenly continued to cook its radiation data for the last two and a half years. It matters little that the government is finally commandeering Tepco’s cleanup: The government is Tepco.

Dollar Signs

Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party is blinded by dollar signs. In May, Abe visited Turkey to help close a $22 billion deal for Japan to build nuclear power plants in that seismically active nation. That kind of cash makes power companies virtually untouchable. And it raises doubts about Tepco’s admission that 300 tons of water laced with strontium and other particles is pouring into the Pacificeach day. One can’t help but wonder if the leak is of a much greater magnitude.

It’s time for the government to face reality and do six things: decommission Fukushima; invite independent auditors from overseas to assess the magnitude of the damage; admit the surrounding area might not be safe for inhabitants, fishing or farming for decades; scour the world for innovative solutions; break up the nuclear village; and level with the Japanese about cleanup costs that will be in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

That brings us to the “what.” Fukushima is a growing embarrassment for Japan on the international stage. Oceans don’t have boundaries. Radioactive traces have been found in bluefin tuna -- not to mention on secondhand cars and auto parts imported by Russia from Japan. Another earthquake -- a live possibility -- could damage Fukushima anew or take out another reactor between now and the 2020 Summer Olympics that Tokyo hopes to host. The world won’t give Japan a pass twice on what would have been a perfectly preventable disaster.

Analysts are rating Abe on his success in cleaning up Japan’s finances. Posterity will judge him on whether he cleaned up the mess Tepco and the nuclear village have created.

To contact the writer of this article: William Pesek in Tokyo at wpesek@bloomberg.net.



August 7, 2013

Japan's Nuclear Nightmare


By William Pesek Aug 7, 2013 3:12 PM GMT+0200  




I had a terrible dream last night. I imagined it had been 29 months since a giant earthquake and tsunami wrecked the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant, the reactor continued to spew radiation into the sea just 135 miles away from my home in Tokyo -- and the Japanese government was standing by and doing nothing. Wait! Sadly, until earlier today, that was reality.

The real nightmare for me and the 126 million people who reside in Japan was that it took Prime Minister Shinzo Abe this long to step in to help Tokyo Electric Power -- the plant's owner -- to deal with tons of radioactive groundwater spilling into the Pacific Ocean. Stopping the leakage could cost tens of millions of dollars; Tepco, which continues to insist that the contamination is minor, would clearly not have been eager to pony up.

Really, a little government intervention would have been even nicer two years ago, when Naoto Kan occupied Abe's office. Back then, scientists and academics urged Japan to nationalize Tepco and decommission that plants it ran with such abandon and arrogance.

Intervention would have been more helpful even one year ago, when Yoshihiko Noda was prime minister. Experts tried to get Noda to take seriously evidence that radioactive discharge from Fukushima was exceeding legal limits. They nudged him to hold someone, anyone, at Tepco accountable. Prosecutors had arrested and charged Olympus Corp. executives for cooking the accounting books. Why not the folks at Tepco, whose flouting of safety rules almost cooked Tokyo? Literally -- most people still have no idea how close we came to losing the world's biggest city in March 2011.

It also would have been great if Abe himself had cared more about nuclear safety than dollars when he assumed the premiership in December. His focus was on restarting the 52 reactors taken offline out of an abundance of caution after the earthquake. Never mind that most Japanese want them to remain mothballed. Japan’s potent ``nuclear village,'' the nexus of power companies and pro-nuclear regulators, bureaucrats and researchers, packs way too much political firepower. This nuclear-industrial complex is one of the nation's biggest advertisers, which keeps the Japanese media in line. That's partly why international campaigners like Greenpeace received so few column inches as they presented report after report showing radiation levels far above what Tepco would admit. (Tepco was eventually forced to come clean.)

So, is Abe's sudden interest in Fukushima's radiation mess for real? Well, it has to be at this point. Aside from the risk to his approval ratings, Tokyo is actively vying for the 2020 Summer Olympics. International Olympic Committee officials might find the threat of protests in Istanbul preferable to jokes about Tokyo hosting the Chernobyl Games.

The first thing Abe must do is shift the Nuclear Regulation Authority's focus away from evaluating the safety of atomic plants for restart, back to the fast-growing crisis of toxic sludge flowing into the sea around Fukushima. Really folks, first things first. Let's first make sure children living within a 100 mile radius won't develop cancer 10 years from now.

Abe also should nationalize the Fukushima site. Yes it will be messy, sure it will cause a tempest in financial circles when investors and creditors fight over money and indeed it will put Japan's government into uncharted territory. But Tepco isn't up to the task of managing life-and-death matters in what's arguably the world's most seismically-active nation. Each time I read quotes by one of their executives explaining how the company learned from its mistakes and is being reborn, I check and make sure I'm not reading TheOnion.com.

Sometimes comedy is the only reasonable default at times like this. Tepco's logo, after all, looks suspiciously like Mickey Mouse (no joke). So I'll ask: Who put Homer Simpson in charge of Japan's nuclear safety? For such a rules-based, technologically proficient nation, Japan’s nuclear safety record these last 15 years seems no sounder than that of the fictional Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, where Homer is head of safety. Only, this is no laughing matter.

So better late than never, Mr. Prime Minister. We Tokyoites are glad you are finally on the case. But please excuse us for having our doubts that a year from today, things in Fukushima will be any safer. Welcome to our nightmare.



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