An event such as the Fukushima triple meltdown is bound to bring heightened scrutiny in any nation to the institutional corruption and elitist arrogance (as revealed in the Japanese Diet’s Select Committee Report on the Fukushima accident) that precipitates such “accidents waiting to happen.” The Three-Mile Island partial meltdown stalled new commercial reactor construction in the United States for three decades–until a charismatic Democratic president with a lot of pseudo-environmentalist street cred decided to bankroll a “nuclear renaissance” with loan guarantees that dwarf those granted to clean-energy companies like the now infamous Solyndra (36 B$ in loan guarantees and 18B$ in DOE research for nuclear vs 5.4 billion for clean energy loan guarantees and research in the 2012 budget; the investment in mini-nukes–a hare-brained scheme straight out of Khrushchev’s fervid imagination–853 million is much larger than the 457 million for solar). In the Soviet Union, Chernobyl’ did not cause the collapse of Communist rule but Gorbachev makes it quite clear in his memoirs it was the crucial factor in his easing up on state censorship (glasnost’) which certainly did lead to the radicalization of many Soviet citizens. And so it goes in Japan. According to Reuters,
Tens of thousands of people protested against nuclear power outside Japan’s parliament on Sunday, the same day a proponent of using renewable energy to replace nuclear following the Fukushima disaster was defeated in a local election.
This news is worth parsing in two ways. The first is the size, make-up and radicalized nature of the protest. Tens of thousands of protesters is not a frequent event in Japan and they broke through the police barriers; the police had to deploy “armored buses” to block the main gate to the parliament, which more or less did the protesters’ work for them since they were trying to create a human chain around the building. Many of these protesters were elderly and the composition of the crowd was clearly diverse–the size was shockingly large in a country that had not seen mass protests in decades prior to the Fukushima disaster. In fact, yesterday’s protests have been dwarfed by the growing Friday evening protests at the Prime Minister’s office. As Tina Gerhardt at The Huffington Post reports:
According to Aileen Mioko Smith of Green Action, a Japan-based organization working to end nuclear power, “the demonstrations started out with 500, then several thousand and have now even reached 150,000. Each week, they have grown.”
One recent protest in a major park attracted 200,000 demonstrators. It is the snowballing effect of the protests that is important here. Unlike the American response to Occupy Wall Street Movement, especially in New York, in which allegedly “liberal” mayors used thuggish police-state tactics to repress political dissent and raise the cost of participation to all but the most courageous (see tactics, Putinian), the Japanese authorities have not dared to unleash police violence against these protests. Little wonder. The protest crowds are also very diverse–including “salary-men,” mothers with children and, most importantly, seniors, who have been in the forefront of speaking truth to power. As Yuri Kageyama of the AP reports of one retired protester’s observations,
“All these people have gotten together and are raising their voices,” said Shoji Kitano, 64, a retired math teacher who was wearing a sign that read, “No to Nukes.”
Kitano said he had not seen such massive demonstrations since the 1960s. He stressed that ordinary Japanese usually don’t demonstrate, but were outraged over the restarting of nuclear power.
A potent symbol of the revolt of the elders and, to some extent, the “respectable classes,” has emerged around the Skilled Veterans’ Corps for Fukushima–the 700 retired nuclear engineers and technicians who stepped in at a critical moment (when TEPCo wanted to abandon the Fukushima plant to a skeleton crew of “contract” laborers). These nuclear insiders have been loud and quite effective in their critiques of the crisis management at Fukushima. After more than a year of trying to work privately with TEPCo and the government, these heroic retirees have gone public and are now sending representatives around the world in speaking tours to argue for a much more aggressive clean-up effort. These guys are particularly credible (though who wouldn’t be compared to TEPCo?) and they know where the bodies are buried (for instance, how subcontractors are using substandard piping and the house-of-cards laughingly referred to as a ”tsunami barrier”). Anti-nuclear sentiment is wide and pervasive, even among the political class–as two “party elders,” the recently retired former prime ministers, Naoto Kan and Yukio Hatoyama have joined the protests against restarting the nation’s nuclear reactors, shuttered for stress tests. The Japanese neo-liberal political establishment faces a crisis of confidence at least as severe as that in Europe and the United States, having gone through five prime ministers in six years. In fact, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party enjoys nearly zero public trust on its nuclear policy; recent polls have shown 80 percent disapproval of the country’s nuclear policy. You’d think in an alleged democracy such stunning numbers would have an effect on public policy and you’d think wrong–Prime Minister Noda has been engaging in an aggressive campaign to restart the nation’s nuclear reactors.
Here’s where we should parse the second bit of news, that of the defeat of Tetsunari Iida, who lost his bid for the governorship of the rural and conservative Yamaguchi.
Of course the big news here was that Iida was in the running at all. Due to the run-of-the-mill corruption, the eventual winner–a faceless pro-nuclear bureaucrat with a massive LDP political machine behind him in a district known as a “conservative kingdom” was the prohibitive favorite, especially since he faced a split opposition of four independent candidates. That Iida, an anti-nuclear activist with no political machinery behind him, made the election such a close thing is no small victory–it’s a bit of an electoral earthquake, actually. With nearly 71 percent of this rural and conservative district agreeing with Mr. Iida that the Kaminoseki Nuclear Plant should not be built, it is clear that Iida’s support came primarily from his anti-nuclear stance. Western pro-nuclear media has been pooh-poohing this as a surprising run against a weak establishment candidate (and to be fair, the pro-nuclear LDP faction around Prime Minister Noda has been winning one local election after another around the restart issue). But if Iida can get a hearing from conservative Yamaguchi at the height of a long, hot, humid summer with brownouts a plenty then Japan’s nuclear establishment is politically vulnerable. Little surprise then that Japan is finally seeing the formation of an electorally viable Green Party.
This is hardly surprising. Japan, after all, has other options. It was able to substitute liquefied natural gas from Russia and Australia without too much difficulty over the last year and with the South Sakhalin fields coming increasingly online, Russia and Australia can easily meet Japan’s electrical needs (and given both countries’ love of Toyotas, these imports will likely only develop greater markets for Japanese industry).
Moreover, the cleanup of Fukushima and the restart of shuttered reactors continue to be riddle with incompetence, corruption and plain criminality. Despite what one recent Op-Ed in the New York Times called “surreal serenity,” the cleanup of stricken towns in the vicinity of Fukushima has come to a standstill–primarily over arguments about, what else?, where to put the contaminated soil. This is a telling development since Noda’s government has skillfully exploited the relatively poor and conservative localities to ok restarting nuclear plants against the resistance of large (and nuclear energy-consuming) urban areas such as Tokyo and Osaka. Already, of the thirteen reactors Noda wishes to restart in Japan’s “nuclear alley,” eleven localities have passed resolutions opposing such action at this time. The reopening of the shuttered Oi reactors, which has evoked so much mass protest, was, in fact, the easy lift on Noda’s list.
And really, who can blame the Japanese voter’s suspicions given the latest malfeasance in the headlines? Respected nuclear experts have slammed the so-called “rigorous stress tests” required for restarting the Oi reactors as focused only on natural events such as earthquakes and tsunamis and not the “man-made” elements so clearly enumerated by the Diet’s Fukushima Report such as equipment failure and human error (I would say human panic). Meanwhile, that corporate villain cut right out of the cloth of some sort of Hollywood stereotype, TEPCo, has been caught in another act of evil. At least one subcontractor ordered its workers on-site to cover their radioactivity badges with lead. Now, beyond the obvious point that this obviates the function of the badges, it is an act of general shit-heelism that is hard to fathom. If one’s badge, after all, does not indicate to you that you have received a high dose of radioactivity, you will not decontaminate and take other safety measures to mitigate radiation poisoning. In other words, this practice is damning your workers to a heightened risk of painful and horrible death by cancer, if not much more immediate radiation sickness. While TEPCo officials hide behind a lack of direct authority–it was subcontractors, after all–they clearly have responsibility for safety measures and quality control on the clean-up site and are at least criminally negligent in this matter. Yet no white-collared manager has been arrested for attempted murder? Why not? Can it be the low-skilled, and low-paid, temporary clean-up workers are considered expendable? Surely, not! Why workers wear lead all the time! (that is actually the excuse being used). Except, this is exactly the conclusion that Japanese voters have reached, that their politicians are deeply corrupt and that their energy corporations are indifferent to human life:
At the Tokyo protest, however, hospital worker Mika Ohta vowed to vote for anti-nuclear candidates in the next election.
“There is nothing good about nuclear power. It is expensive, gets workers radiated and creates waste,” she said. “I’m opposed to this government in every way.”
Like Chernobyl’, Fukushima is radicalizing Japan and getting it to think systemically about the corruption of its alleged leaders. Ohta’s analysis might seem knee-jerk, but once someone has come to the conclusion that the political system is built on subsidizing inefficient and dirty forms of energy, a system that deliberately poison its workers–as well as the populace, well can perestroika be far behind?