Rising frustration

Print edition : May 20, 2011

Evacuees from the neighbourhood of the Daiichi nuclear plant find their predicament difficult to bear.

in Singapore

Prime Minister Naoto Kan arrives at an evacuees' shelter at Rikuzentakata on April 16.-DAMIR SAGOLJ/REUTERS

IF crisis-fatigue is commonplace across the world, the spontaneous display of popular frustration at the height of an unbelievable crisis in technologically advanced Japan is certainly unusual.

Those who figured in such a televised event on April 21 were Prime Minister Naoto Kan and a Japanese citizen who had or was evacuated from the 20-kilometre zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station. The massive March 11 earthquake and tsunami had ruined the plant, and the residents in its vicinity were asked to take shelter at designated evacuation centres.

When Kan visited a gymnasium in the Fukushima prefecture, which was serving as an evacuation centre, a perturbed evacuee told the Prime Minister what he might not have wanted to hear. And Kan had, of course, told the evacuees what they certainly did not want to hear.

It was the day when the Japanese government had decided to enforce a strict no-entry zone in a 20-km radius around the devastated nuclear plant. The earlier order was generally treated by the residents as an advisory although most had moved to evacuation centres against their will. It was in such a climate of crisis that Kan told the evacuees at the gymnasium that it will take at least six months to stabilise the situation [at the radiation-spewing Daiichi atomic energy plant]. Although we [really] need a little more time to reach that goal, efforts would be made to restore normality as soon as possible, he emphasised. This was no music to the ears of the victims of the nuclear radiation crisis.

One evacuee told the Prime Minister: We have endured a lot. We understand that the government does its best, but we strongly want the government to work harder to stabilise the nuclear plant. It was obvious that the perturbed man was not bracing for a showdown with the Prime Minister. But there was no concealing the depth of popular feeling about the suspected lack of urgency on the part of Kan's administration.

In fact, another evacuee was no less candid in front of the cameras although he did not express his bitter feelings in front of the Prime Minister. It is not acceptable that we are being forced out of our homes, he said. Two aspects of the daily predicament of these evacuees made their ordeal that much more difficult for them to bear.

They were not, in the first place, absolute victims in the sense of being troubled by the after-effect of exposure to a harmful level of nuclear radiation. In a sense, they should have been thankful to the government for asking them to leave the Daiichi plant neighbourhood as a precautionary measure. However, their general sense of well-being, the result of non-exposure to a harmful dose of radiation, only served to compound their frustration over the second aspect. The houses of a number of these evacuees did not actually suffer much damage in the March 11 natural disasters. This should explain the evacuee's sense of being forced out of our homes.

TOKYO ELECTRIC POWER Company president Masataka Shimizu and company executives bow to evacuees, apologising for the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, on April 22.-AFP

Lost in the maze of such subtle and subconscious frustrations was a wholly legitimate concern of Kan's administration. As of April 21, the Daiichi plant neighbourhood, especially the area within the 20-km radius, was still blanketed by varying degrees of hazardous nuclear radiation. Overarching such painful realities on both sides, the government and the evacuees, was yet another aspect of popular frustration the perceived (or alleged) delays on the part of the government to recognise the exact gravity of the spiralling civil nuclear emergency at every turn.

Graphically illustrative of such perceptions was the fact that it was only on April 12, one month and one day after the natural disasters, that Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) gave a Chernobyl-like rating for the Daiichi accident. The severity of the crisis was now raised to 7, the worst-case rating, on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES). Having done that, a NISA official quickly clarified that the total amount of radioactive substances released [at Fukushima until April 12] is 10 per cent of that of the [1986] Chernobyl accident [in the Soviet Union]. Such a reassuring tone was cold comfort to the Japanese people, who were told, at the same time, by a plant official that the cumulative leakage of radioactive substances at the plant might eventually exceed the total amount emitted at Chernobyl in the event of a failure by the authorities to seal fully the damaged reactors and spent fuel ponds at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

For the Japanese people, their fragile mood was not related to the political argument of whether the Kan administration had merely inherited the flaws, as it were, at some or all of Japan's numerous atomic energy units. It was not so much a matter of politics as it was a case of perceptions. Relevant to these perceptions was Kan's comment on the very day the Daiichi crisis was reclassified as a worst-case scenario. He expressed the view that the discharge of radioactive substances was, at that point in time, beginning to decline. Just days after such an assertion, Kan felt the need to enforce, by legal means, a no-go area around the Daiichi plant.

Somewhat lost in such a sequence of events was Kan's pledge to review the country's nuclear energy policy by thinking out of the box and to ensure fair damages to those who suffered on account of the Daiichi accident.

Japan's systemic failures to keep its civil nuclear plants safe all the time, a perception in some circles of international political opinion, is best captured in Jeff Kingston's 2011 book, Contemporary Japan. In this, Kingston, who is a professor at a Japanese university, briefly narrates what he portrays as a series of nuclear follies and explains a specific case of whistle-blowing. He notes that the Japanese media eventually blew the lid on the extensive falsification of safety records at some ageing nuclear power plants. In his assessment, the expose in 2002 helped in forcing the [Japanese] government and power industry to do what they should have done in the first place: put safety first. His follow-up argument is that ironically, the [initial] cover-up [of the actual safety standards] was motivated by a desire to avoid raising public concerns about nuclear power and avoid the costs of plant shutdowns that have been the financial bane of the industry.

Surely, the Daiichi accident was triggered, in the first place, by natural disasters rather than any particular human act of omission or commission. Even before the accident occurred, international observers were aware of grave concerns about seismic science and the government's credibility on safety, as in the words of Kingston without any reference to this latest nuclear crisis.

Given such general perceptions at home and abroad, Kan's centre-left government finds itself with an opportunity in adversity: the chance to clean up Japan's image.

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