Wherever you live in Japan, everyone agrees: there’s plenty to be angry about, and plenty to be
anxious about. Plenty of reasons to feel (at best) confused, and (at worst) betrayed. The past two weeks have flown by, featuring news stories such as FUKUSHIMA BEGINS CHILD THYROID CHECKS , STRONTIUM FOUND IN YOKOHAMA , CESIUM FOUND IN TOKYO , MINAMI-SANRIKU IN DANGER OF FISCAL COLLAPSE (NHK evening news), and RADIOACTIVE CLEANUP TO BE COVERED BY STATE . Each of these stories touched nerves, fanned anxiety, and evoked a mixture of sympathy and frustration in readers of morning papers and watchers of nightly news programs. Bloggers report and opine, and comments fly fast and furious at the bottom of blog entries. There are those, of course, who don’t read the papers and adhere to strictly- entertainment TV….but even so, the news seeps in. There’s really no avoiding it. Personally, I welcome it: compared to the vague reports following the March 11th disaster, there is now a wealth of information flowing from both home and abroad, translated into multiple languages, and folks are able to see the situation more objectively from a variety of different points of view.
Inevitably, among the constant barrage of stories and statistics, a single story will leap into my consciousness and stay with me all week, begging to be written about. I generally torment my co-workers and family for the next few days, demanding to know what they think about it, and if they think nothing at all, WHY? Then on the weekend, I’ll attempt to gather my thoughts together and make sense of it here. This week’s troubling article was from Wednesday’s International Herald Tribune, a compilation of NY Times articles for overseas readers.
In “Japan looks overseas for future of its nuclear trade “, Hiroko Tabuchi writes about Japan’s plans to continue selling nuclear power technology to developing countries, namely Vietnam and Turkey. “The effort is being made,” she writes, “despite criticism within Japan by environmental groups and opposition politicians. ” But here’s the paragraph that caused myself, and my friend Kimiko, to groan aloud: “It may seem a stretch for Japan to acclaim its nuclear technology overseas while struggling at home to contain the nuclear meltdowns that displaced more than 100,000 people. But Japan argues that its latest technology includes safeguards not present at the decades-old reactors at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi plant, which continues to leak radiation….Japanese officials argue, their nation has learned valuable lessons and has a good nuclear track record for withstanding earlier earthquakes.”
Oh, well, I’ll love to turn the ghost of my dead grandmother, along with my still-living father-in-law, loose in the Japanese Parliament to hear them shoot THAT statement down. “Pick up one mess before you start another!” my grandmother would say, and shame them with her look of moral indignation. ”It’s no use saying you’ve learned a lesson,” my father-in-law would say in disgust. “You have to prove it with action.” He would snort dismissively at pompous lawmakers, reducing them to babbling fools…..but that’s in my dreams. The reality is that it’s not just the central government involved here. Tabuchi’s article reveals that Japan’s top three companies-Hitachi, Mitsubishi, and Toshiba, are all involved in some aspect of nuclear engineering, and are “more eager than ever to look overseas.” Well, simply put, that represents the husbands of some of my co-workers (Hitachi is one of the biggest employers in Hadano), and many other friends as well. If you count guilt by association. Which I hate to do. In any case, I broached the subject with a friend whose husband works for the Hadano branch of Hitachi.
“Of course we know that Hitachi is involved,” she said. “Everyone does. But what can we do
about it?” Well, EVERYONE didn’t know, because I was still thinking of Hitachi in terms of vacuum cleaners and wide-screen TVs. What a mess. To what degree are ordinary citizens implicated in the corruption of the nuclear industry? Should Hitachi employees quit their jobs, trade their briefcases for surfboards, and throw their retirement benefits to the wind? One former high-ranking TEPCO employee has done just that (see the video if you’re interested) , but that guy is definitely an exception. I love my friends. Their husbands are great fathers, great spouses, and hard workers. They’re not the real bad guys. Just like the city officials who agreed to host nuclear power plants decades ago are not the real bad guys. Nor are the workers at the power plants, the majority of whom have been assigned their jobs by temporary employment agencies. And yet, as Haruki Murakami said in his Barcelona speech, if we have remained silent in the face of corruption, we are implicated. It’s not a pretty picture.
In Tabuchi’s article, opposition party lawmaker Itsunori Onodera is quoted as asking, “Why is Japan trying to export something it rejected at home?” Well, obviously because the commitment to nuclear power has not been clearly rejected at home. It’s being “considered”, and that is quite a different thing. Former Prime Minister Kan stubbornly attempted to commit the nation to a fast-track renewable-energy program, and was widely rebuffed for his hastiness. Citizens interviewed on TV admit to having doubts about the safety of nuclear power plants, but think they are still a necessary part of the immediate future. Currently only one out of five of Japan’s nuclear plants is still in service, due to safety checks and damage repairs since the quake; these reactors are technically “in limbo” rather than “out of service”. The possibility/probability of their re-starting has not been rejected by the current government (they change so quickly), which now announces its intention to export its new and improved technology, complete with “lessons learned.”
With full de-comissioning of the Daiichi damaged reactors still , according to anyone’s accounts, decades down the road, I would like to know what lessons have been learned. At the end of the summer, I read an article in the Mainichi Shinbun about the complications and costs of de-commissioning, and came away both humbled and appalled. Here’s what I learned: In simple terms, the process involves cleaning (removing spent fuel rods and decontaminating pipes and containers), waiting (for the level of radiation to go down with time), and dismantling (the final stage, where the facility itself is taken down, and the site reverted to
a vacant lot). Worldwide, only 15 nuclear power plants have actually been de-commissioned. Japan has only had experience with de-comissioning one, and has not finished the process. That one is the Tokai Power Plant in Ibaragi, where the process of removing spent fuel began in 1998. Dismantling of the facilities began in 2001, and workers have not yet begun to take apart the reactor itself. Projected cost upon completion? 88.5 billion yen. Manpower involved? 563,000 people. The next plant to be de-commissioned will likely be Hamaoka, the aging and controversial plant in Shizuoka Prefecture. Experts from Hitachi predict the process will take thirty years to complete.
The point is that both Tokai and Hamaoka are “normal” de-comissioning projects, whereas Fukushima is anything but normal. Experts are divided on how long the process will take, how much it will cost, what measures will be most effective, and even whether or not the spent fuel rods can be removed at all. If they can, re-processing will be complicated, and storage sites will be equally problematic. According to the three step de-comissioning process, work has barely begun, as TEPCO cannot begin to think of removing spent fuel while contaminated water must be constantly cooled and treated, and radiation levels are are so dangerously high that workers are only allowed to work short shifts in rotation. Meiji University expert in reactor engineering and policy Tadahiro Katsuta predicts, “…at least ten years just to determine whether it is possible to remove the fuel,” and a possible fifty years before the de-comissioning is complete. Best to not even attempt full de-comissioning. Instead, entomb the entire site in concrete, he advises, and others in the field agree. Experts abroad (as well as those at home, namely Kyoto University Professor Koide ) continue to ask, “Where is the corium?”, fearing that the core of the reactor (a mixture of melted fuel and other elements) has breached the floor of the containment vessel and is sinking steadily toward the level of the water table, with possible deadly consequences.
As the Mainichi Shinbun article proclaimed, “…what we face is a great unknown to all of
mankind”, and until the Fukushima Daiichi plant has been safely dismantled (or safely entombed) , the lessons have not yet been learned. Even then, environmental research must be continued to learn how the surroundings have changed (they can never return to what they once were) and adapted as a result of widespread contamination. Of course, the thyroid checks of Fukushima’s children are just part of the medical and sociological research that must continue for decades as well. It’s incredible to me that the former Prime Minister was condemned for “hastiness” in ordering the shutdown of the Hamaoka plant and in pushing his renewable energy program, while the current government is literally jumping at the chance to re-start negotiations for building new reactors abroad when their own very public disaster is still in a dangerously volatile state. “You haven’t cleaned up your mess!” says my Grandmother, glowering, “and here you go starting a new one!” ”Don’t TELL me you’ve learned a lesson,” frowns my father-in-law. “Show me the proof!” As for me, I mourn for the terrible waste of time and resources involved–time that could be spend in invention and creation, rather than tearing down and decontaminating. How on earth did we manage to become dependent on technology so deadly that it takes nearly half a lifetime to render it harmless after it’s shut down?
Yet because Japan has not clearly rejected nuclear technology, there is actually very little contradiction in its determination to export. As long as the great majority of citizens remain uncommitted or silent, the government will move ahead with its own agenda. This is the burning question that I think about all the time now: Will enough ordinary citizens finally break their silence and take charge of their own future? It’s hard to know at this point.
It is a hopeful sign that many Japanese young people formally described as “..meek, mild and manageable” have found ” ..a renewed awareness in themselves and a belief that they should be doing something to redress the pain and ills their country is experiencing.” (Japan Times, Roger Pulvers, Oct. 8). Pulvers, an author, playwright, theatre director and professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology believes that the country is ready for an eruption of major proportions. ”Conditions are Ripe for the Volcano of Japan’s Betrayed to Erupt Again” read the heading of his article, which traces a bit of the history of discontent and protest in Japan. Pulvers compares the current state of Japan to a volcano, appearing “..smooth, peaceful, uneventful and unchanging on the surface, while underneath growls the rough heat of anger…..The Japanese people may be placid and obsessed with decorum on the surface, but the cycle of generational change and the build-up of national anger-especially in those sections of society that feel betrayed-is never something to be taken lightly.” He sees hope in the nation’s young people, who are skilled in social networking and bursting with potential energy.
It’s certainly long past time for college-age students in Japan to begin thinking independently and taking risks. I sent my own son back to the US for college (not that he wasn’t champing at the bit to be gone himself) precisely because I did not want him to living at home in his twenties and spending his part-time job money on electronic toys,
cigarettes, or beer. I know that not all Japanese students do this when they hit the age of twenty, but plenty do. I will send my daughter abroad as well, as she will be happier wearing jeans and t-shirts to school every day, rather than doing “oshare” with make-up and accessories, as Japanese college girls do. I want them both to live independently, make their own decisions, and bail themselves out of tricky situations rather than calling home. Japanese college students might risk missing the last train home if they drink too much and forget the time, but otherwise they have fairly cushy lives, requiring very little in the way of sacrifice. This is because ( their parents will tell you) they suffered terribly in high school studying day and night, and are now taking the reward they deserve. Whatever–it’s not the life I wanted for my own children, and I’m relieved that they made no fuss about studying abroad after living in small-town Japan since their Nursery School days.
Hopefully, Professor Pulvers is right, and the self-absorbtion and limited world view of the college-age students I see around me is morphing into something better and stronger. It has been refreshing to read the blogs of college students who have volunteered in Tohoku since the quake; many of them have been deeply affected by the people they came in contact with and have returned again and again to continue helping. Most refreshing, of course, and most impressive, has been coming in contact with the hunger strikers–the four young people (plus one who joined halfway through) who camped outside of the METI offices in Kasumigaski for ten days, taking nothing but water and salt. They weren’t concerned with their dress or appearance, or worried that this time away from college might affect their future careers. They were angry, yes, but their anger was under control, and constructively channelled. My daughter and I took a day to visit them, and I still marvel at their maturity, communication skills, and powers of determination. So I’ll end tonight’s post with a very well-made video clip of the four young people who represent hope for the country. Do take a look, and imagine things from their perspective. They do not want their generation involved in cleaning up a mess it did not make, but they will have no choice. The most they can do is attempt to make that burden lighter for their own children by fighting to bring the era of dependence on nuclear power to a close.