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"Why rush to conclusions?"

April 13, 2012

Japan must heed lessons from World War II in handling nuclear power



Observing the developments surrounding the push to restart nuclear reactors idled for regular inspections, I was reminded of the words of a renowned political scientist, the late Masao Maruyama.

A year after World War II came to an end, Maruyama pointed out in his essay, "Chokokkashugi no ronri to shinri" (The theory and psychology of supernationalism), that Japan showed no evidence of any awareness that it had taken part in such a horrific war. He asked, "What does it mean that we were shockingly swept along by an unknown force into the midst of a war that the entire nation dedicated itself to?"

I think what Maruyama's analysis of postwar Japan applies also to Japan's situation regarding nuclear power. Despite having wreaked such a horrific disaster under a safety myth that buttressed the construction of nuclear reactors, it has yet to be clarified where the responsibility for the crisis lies. Additionally, the government is moving toward the resumed operations of halted reactors as if it were the obvious path just a year after the disaster's outbreak, which evokes the manner in which the nation allowed itself to be swept into World War II.

At an April 9 meeting of relevant ministers, the Yoshihiko Noda administration determined that the No. 3 and 4 reactors at Oi Nuclear Power Plant operated by Kansai Electric Power Co. "for the most part, met" provisional conditions established for resumed operations. The administration is expected to confirm this temporary assessment soon. The government's push toward resumed nuclear power generation, despite widespread warnings of more massive earthquakes, does not strike me so much as hasty, but rather reminds me of the structure of the United States' industrial military complex. It should be up to the public to decide whether or not we follow a path of coexistence with nuclear power, through such methods as national elections and referendums.

On March 23, at a symposium hosted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, journalists from eight countries came together in Tokyo to discuss the role of the media in the Great East Japan Earthquake. I participated as the moderator of the discussions, and while some of the remarks were painful to hear, I appreciated the honest input of journalists from around the world, especially since in Japan there is a sense that the disasters are now in the past.

Immediately after the quake, as we watched tsunami swallow whole communities and reactor buildings at the Fukushima nuclear plant explode, we all soberly reflected on the future of our country. It could have been characterized as an opportunity for Japan to start fresh, and some may have viewed it as Japan's second "postwar" moment.

Has the government, however, examined the nation's past in fully thinking about its future? Prime Minister Noda's approach to the Nuclear Security Summit held last month in Seoul -- which included the Fukushima nuclear disaster in its agenda -- clearly did not leave the impression that Japan was starting anew. In addition, Japan's countermeasures against nuclear terrorism and possible attacks on its nuclear reactors were shown to be sorely lacking.

As evidenced in how Japan has handled North Korea's launch of what it claimed was a "satellite," the Japanese government's crisis management is extremely haphazard. As such, it's hard to believe that Japan's crisis management policy with regards to nuclear power is watertight. At the aforementioned journalists' symposium, Hisashi Suzuki, chief editorial writer at Fukushima-Minpo, expressed deep concern over spent nuclear fuel at the stricken Fukushima plant, since another massive quake could further damage the plant's reactor buildings and bring about a far worse catastrophe. The crisis, albeit quietly, is ongoing.

A striking scene from the symposium involved CNN's Tokyo correspondent Kyung Lah and Hiroshi Ogasawara, chief editorial writer at Iwate Nippo, a daily paper in Iwate Prefecture. Lah said that she had been impressed to see disaster survivors form neat lines in front of convenience stores, and share one bowl of noodles among multiple people at an evacuation center. Ogasawara, meanwhile, said that residents in disaster-struck communities had always helped each other out, and that lining up at convenience stores was a normal thing to do. Because of this, he said, it was surprising to hear that people were struck by such behavior.

The remarks made by the two journalists sound like two sides of the same coin: that the Japanese are a forbearing people. Patience may be a virtue, but it could give ineffective politicians the impression that they are doing their job right. One British media outlet warns that excessive patience and endurance could have an adverse effect when it comes to reconstruction. The same could probably be said about the issue of nuclear power.

Needless to say, the media bears a heavy responsibility. Priscilla Jebaraj, a reporter at The Hindu, raised the question of neutrality in media coverage of nuclear power. She explained that in reporting on India's anti-nuclear movement, a major Indian newspaper that supports nuclear power has vilified members of the anti-nuclear camp. In response, some audience members stated that the Japanese mass media's investigations into nuclear power have been insufficient.

It is, of course, important to accept criticism. However, I think that it is not so much that the media's investigations have been insufficient, but that Japan -- including the government, utilities, and media -- does not have the capacity to accurately ascertain what has taken place in Fukushima, or the safety of nuclear reactors. Nuclear power is a critical energy security consideration for an island nation like Japan. Moreover, some people are likely to want to secure the latent ability to produce nuclear weapons. There's also the concern over a possible imbalance between energy supply and demand this coming summer. With so many factors at stake, it is not surprising for people to be divided over the matter.

All of this, however, must have as its prerequisite the safety of the country. The notion that the resumed operation of nuclear reactors is a must in our making a fresh start is nothing but arrogance. It is the job of the media to blow the whistle on a country being swept away into something bigger and darker than what's happened so far. It goes without saying that this is a lesson that we should have learned from World War II. We must take our time in deciding whether Japan really needs nuclear power. Why rush to conclusions? (By Hiroshi Fuse, Expert Senior Writer)

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