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Takao Yamada : Japanese nuke exports feel like "double-dealing"

May 6, 2013



Japan losing its moral compass with nuclear reactor exports



For Japan to export nuclear technology is very strange indeed. The Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant remains unstable more than two years after the March 2011 triple meltdown there, and the country's broader nuclear energy system is still incomplete. In fact, it is deficiencies in Japan's nuclear plants that have stalled reactor restarts.

And yet, we are about to sell our reactors to foreign nations.

Some people might say that if it's fine with the other country and it helps Japan, then why not sell them? I cannot agree. The virtuous thing to do would be to learn from our own experiences and consider the safety of Japan's friends, but the government's way of thinking does away with virtue. We must not become a rich but amoral nation.

The Fukushima nuclear disaster revealed that experts have no power when slotted into small pockets of a sprawling system. This society, which is so accustomed to peace and prosperity, exposes its weakness by failing to get to the root of a problem when push comes to shove. We saw prideful conceit and wishful thinking -- namely that our anxieties will all be solved by technological advancement -- pass unquestioned.

Over this Golden Week holiday, I finally finished reading Yoichi Funabashi's "Countdown to Meltdown." The two-volume work, which won the Oya Soichi Nonfiction Award in April, uses witness accounts to illustrate the deep cracks in postwar Japanese society, glimpses of which the public caught just after the Fukushima nuclear crisis began.

Funabashi is the former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun daily, and his reporting skills enjoy a very high reputation. What left the greatest impression as I read was how many of the people recruited to help clean up the nuclear mess saw the crisis as a "lost war." They spoke of the parallels between military history and their own experiences at Fukushima, and furthermore revealed that the causes of that "defeat" had yet to be remedied.

One of Funabashi's sources was responsible for trying to restore power to the stricken Fukushima plant in the disaster's opening phase, and had to dispatch workers to a high radiation area to do the work.

"I felt like I was sending men out on a kamikaze mission, except they would have no Zero fighter plane or even any fuel," the source told Funabashi.

Another source was a senior government official who watched in astonishment as the management of plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) failed to respond to cries for help from those on site. It was like "Guadalcanal," the official said, referring to the long and bloody battle for that Pacific island that ended in catastrophic defeat for the Imperial Japanese Army in 1943.

According to the book, it was TEPCO's older engineers, some even retired, who stepped to the fore in the crisis. The younger staff members were uncomfortable with going beyond standard procedure, according to one technocrat's observations. This calls to mind how the loss of a veteran presence eventually destabilized the Imperial Japanese Army in the years after the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05.

The Japanese government maintains something called the System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information (SPEEDI), designed to forecast the spread of radioactive materials after a nuclear disaster. After the meltdowns, however, the government hid the SPEEDI data, worried that releasing the information would cause chaos. One marine meteorologist, referring to Tokyo Gov. Naoki Inose's book "Showa 16-nen Natsu no Haisen" (Japan's defeat in the summer of 1941), lamented that ignoring vital information had become a tradition.

In the spring of 1941, before Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, the Cabinet of Prince Fumimaro Konoe asked some young, top-flight minds in government and the private sector to run a simulation of a wider Pacific war. The elite analysis group concluded that "Japan, with the advantage of surprise, will be victorious in the early stages. However, the war will go on and, as the Soviet Union will join the fight against us, Japan is certain to lose. We recommend avoiding war."

Then Army Minister Hideki Tojo, however, was having none of it.

"Gentlemen, I thank you for all your diligent research. Your conclusions, however, are mere armchair theory, and show that you do not appear to be thinking of the realities of war. In fact, no one thought Japan could win the Russo-Japanese War, but we did," Tojo stated, and he ignored the report.

Similar episodes since then have illustrated how helpless postwar Japan is, despite the country's emergence as a solid economic power built on a foundation of uninterrupted peace. The Fukushima disaster has made it clear that building nuclear reactors in Japan is to invite into our country a danger on par with war.

What's more, we have not rid ourselves of this danger. The government changed at the end of 2012, but plant operator TEPCO -- described by the safety chief at the Nuclear Safety Commission as "having a corporate culture in which it does things it's told to do only because it has no choice," and being "optimistic and inward-focused" -- is the same as ever.

I finished Funabashi's book and turned on the TV, and was greeted by the image of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. He was in Turkey, announcing Japan had been given preferential negotiating rights for nuclear reactor exports to that country.

"We will share the lessons we've learned from the (Fukushima) disaster with the world," Abe was saying. So what is the greatest lesson we've learned from the Fukushima crisis? In my mind, it's that nuclear power has two faces. It can spawn great prosperity, but can sometimes also rob us of our nation's land.

Within Japan, we look upon the Fukushima meltdowns with disgust and are groping our way toward a non-nuclear future. In the Middle East, Japan treats nuclear power as a business, putting profit first. This looks like a case of double-dealing, and does not suit a country with such moral influence as the postwar "new country" of Japan.


(By Takao Yamada, Expert Senior Writer)

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