Critical mass

Print edition : July 15, 2011

People evacuated from the 20-kilometre exclusion zone around Tokyo Electric Power Company's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station at an event marking three months since the earthquake and tsunami, in Minami Soma, Fukushima prefecture, on June 11. - TOMCHIRO OHSUMI/BLOOMBERG

The public debate in the wake of the Fukushima disaster has the potential to change the shape of politics and public life in Japan.

THE spectre of Fukushima continues to haunt Japan. The myth of safe nuclear energy which prevailed in the country for long has been shattered following the triple disasters of March 11 the earthquake of magnitude 9, the tsunami that followed it, and the damage to the No.1 Fukushima nuclear reactor, now graded as level 7 on a par with the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. Reports show that radiation levels are dangerously high. For instance, the presence of caesium in the seawater outside the No. 3 reactor in Fukushima is 18,000 times the national safety standard.

On the surface, life seems to have returned to normal, but there is a widespread sense of unease and concern about where Japan is heading and what the dangers of the radiation mean. This has changed the contours of public debate and the tenor of everyday life. The national mood, already under siege because of Japan's apparent inability to match the economic growth and political dynamism of China, is sour. The pace of life is slower than it was earlier, lights have been dimmed and escalators switched off. People head home after work rather than to restaurants, as it was earlier.

The political class appears bereft of leadership and clarity. Naoto Kan, the beleaguered Prime Minister who emerged as a political leader thanks to the backing of civil society groups, has managed to postpone his exit for some time. The consensus built on the basis of a close link between industry and the government, which was seen as the basis for growth and prosperity, is being questioned. Apparently, subsidies have always sustained the nuclear industry, and the cosy relationship between the industry and the government meant that malfunctions and violations were swept under the carpet.

Contradictory statements and subsequent retractions even as the crisis unfolded have also undermined public confidence. This public trust, that ultimately the government had the nation's interest at heart, has taken a beating. This questioning of the assumptions on which public discourse has been conducted carries the potential to change the shape of politics and public life in Japan. A new feeling that has emerged is that public affairs is too important to be left only to politicians and bureaucrats.

Building Consensus

In contrast to India, where civil society movements and the courts have come to play a strong role in public life, civil society movements in Japan have been subdued for some time. Their heyday was the 1960s and 1970s, when political and environmental concerns brought people out into the streets. Today even the Fukushima disaster has failed to inspire any such large-scale political movement to question government policy.

The spirit of civil society participation that prevailed in the 1960s died, in part, because the government took the struggle out of the courts and resolved issues through committees that managed settlements between the affected people and industry. So, financial compensation was often very large, though sometimes delayed, and civil society groups failed to institutionalise their existence or build up case law through courts to broaden social rights. The movements died down, and people seeking alternatives now function in isolation or are focussed on individual aims.

The government-industry connection, which has for long been lauded as the backbone of Japanese prosperity, has been shown to be a flawed machine. In fact, it was the anger against back-room deals that helped to end the dominance of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

Public construction projects have always provided a lucrative source of funds and patronage, so much so that scholars have called Japan a dokken kokka a construction state. Huge public works channelled funds to favoured companies and, ultimately, to political parties and key politicians, giving them the financial clout to fight elections and control large and loyal cliques within parties. Similarly, the central government spread its largesse to impoverished regions by building museums, gymnasiums and other public buildings even where there was little use for them, or on an unnecessarily large scale, to ensure its electoral control.

The same policy worked when it came to winning support for building nuclear plants. Large subsidies were given to areas that accepted nuclear power plants. Even today there is support from the community for locating nuclear plants. Local governments are impoverished and jobs are few, and hence government subsidies act as a powerful and hard-to-refuse incentive. Anti-nuclear groups threaten these financial flows and find little support among the local community. Fukushima today attracts workers from all over Japan because they find work there, that too at wages higher than elsewhere. Even the Japan Communist Party, with a strong base among workers in the nuclear industry, has long supported the use of nuclear energy, but its widespread ramifications have forced the party to reconsider its position.

Impact on livelihoods

The Fukushima reactor meltdown and its contamination of the surrounding land and sea has destroyed livelihoods and businesses in the region. Food crops and livestock have been directly affected by radiation, putting farms out of business. After an initial shutdown, manufacturing plants in the area have begun functioning, but production levels are low because energy supply is constrained.

The psychological impact of the disaster is harder to measure. Though many foreign workers and students have returned, some 50,000 Chinese students have not returned for fear of the effects of radiation. People in the region are advised not to step out unnecessarily. Schools have taken to removing the topsoil from playgrounds to reduce the possibility of radiation exposure. Given the demographics of an ageing population, the affected are often the elderly or the very young.

The elderly, the very people who worked through the economic miracle years, are now bearing the burden of the collapse of that vision. The impact of the Fukushima plant meltdown on the workers has led national unions to take a clear stand against nuclear energy. At the May Day rally, Sakuji Daikoku, the chairman of the National Confederation of Trade Unions which represents 1.2 million workers, called for a change in the government's nuclear energy policy. The Japan Communist Party, the Social Democratic Party (DSP) and the trade union confederation Rengo, which has a backing of 6.8 million workers, supported the call.

Denryoku Soren, the union of workers in the electrical and nuclear industries, has brought to public notice the dire conditions under which labour works within the 20-km zone of exclusion. At the Fukushima plant, workers sleep on concrete floors, drink rationed bottled water, and eat mostly biscuits to reduce the danger of radiation from contaminated vegetables and milk products. There is no running water to wash as plumbing is broken, and the only way to communicate is through satellite phone as cellular phone towers are down.

Workers operating a treatment facility for radioactive-contaminated water at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, on June 11.-AFP

Following the accident, workers and managers at the plant took a 20 per cent to 25 per cent wage cut so that the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) could save 54 billion yen a year on wages. TEPCO is, of course, seeking government help for the compensation it has begun to pay out.

There have also been contradictory reports about the levels of radiation exposure. TEPCO has doubled its estimate of the level of radiation release in the first week of the crisis from 370,000 terabecquerels to 770,000 terabecquerels. Apart from iodine and caesium, strontium-90, which causes bone cancer, has been detected at 20 times the legal limit.

Workers are put on one-hour shifts to minimise exposure, but the legal limit of exposure has been raised to 250 million millisieverts. In the U.S., it is 50 millisieverts. TEPCO has even blamed workers for unduly exposing themselves by not following guidelines.

The crisis at the nuclear plant has forced the government to separate the regulatory agency, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), which is responsible for promoting the nuclear industry. The practice of amakudari retired bureaucrats from the Ministry finding jobs in the nuclear industry had led to lax oversight and toleration of violations, which have now been exposed. NISA, for instance, merely expressed regret that workers were exposed to radiation beyond legal limits.

Anti-nuclear groups, though small in number, have been determinedly fighting what they see as a dangerous policy and questioning the myth of safe nuclear energy. They have been warning that the government and its agencies are not adequately prepared for emergencies. After the Kobe earthquake in 1995, people in Hamaoka, where the Chubu Company built a nuclear plant, raised the issue of safety, and in 2002, together with other groups from across the country, they called the government to stop the four reactors of the Hamaoka plant from functioning. The group, represented by the lawyer Yuichi Kaido, pointed out the dangers in case of a high magnitude earthquake and moved the Shizuoka courts in 2003, but it lost the case on October 27, 2007. Ironically, on July 27 that year an earthquake in Niigata, for the first time, damaged a nuclear reactor built on the revised building standards of 2006.

The fatal flaw in policy, experts point out, is to use earlier disasters as standards. The 1923 Great Kanto earthquake served as a benchmark until the Kobe earthquake. The Fukushima reactors, too, were built to meet only a 5.4- to 5.7-metre tsunami because those were the highest recorded earlier. The Fukushima reactors have yet to be brought under control, but TEPCO says it will do so by the end of the year. NISA is sympathetic to the industry. Its survey shows that the companies have implemented safety regulations and that there is no problem in restarting power generation in 18 of the total 54 reactors. Seventeen reactors will continue to remain suspended as they have suffered damage. Industry Minister Banri Kaieda has started asking local governments to agree to restart nuclear reactors in the interest of growth.

A Wake-up Call

The effect of the Fukushima reactor meltdown has served as a wake-up call to many around the world. Even in developed countries where resources and technologies are available, it is difficult to predict natural disasters or prepare to meet them adequately. The costs involved are huge. In Japan, the bill is estimated to cross $300 billion.

The March 11 disaster in a way marks the end of what has been a very long post-War period. It underlines the need to strengthen local governments and build a strong civil society. It is also a reminder of visions such as that of Ueki Emori, a civil rights activist of the 1880s who called for a decentralised and democratic Japan.

Brij Tankha is Professor of Modern Japanese History in the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor