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The myth of safe and peaceful use of nuclear energy

The Japanese have been very conscious of the dangers of nuclear weapons, but there has been little support for campaigns against nuclear power. Just as Japan’s unique Peace Constitution evolved from the ruins of World War II, the Fukushima disaster could initiate a new, peaceful and environmentally harmonious society, says Yuki Tanaka  

The devastating earthquake registering 9.0 on the Richter scale that hit Japan on March 11, 2011, together with the massive tsunami, completely destroyed the picturesque northeastern coast of Japan's main island, taking tens of thousands of lives and creating hundreds of thousands of refugees.

Along this stretch of utter destruction, four nuclear power stations comprising a total of 15 reactors are placed within a distance of about 200 km. Of these, the Fukushima No 1 nuclear power station, operated by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), is the largest, comprising six nuclear reactors. Until now, TEPCO has been proud of the robustness of the containment vessels of these reactors. It has claimed that they were made utilising the brilliant technology originally developed to produce the main battery of the largest naval artillery ever produced, mounted on the gigantic battleship, Yamato, of the Japanese Imperial Navy, which US forces destroyed towards the end of the Asia-Pacific War. TEPCO claimed that the nuclear reactors would safely stop, then automatically cool down and tightly contain the radiation in the event of an earthquake, and that there was therefore no danger of earthquakes causing any serious nuclear accident. The vulnerability of nuclear reactors to earthquakes was already evident, however, when TEPCO's Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant on Japan's northwest coast caused several malfunctions, including a fire in a transformer, and a small quantity of radiation leaked into the ocean and the atmosphere following a magnitude 6.8 earthquake that hit this region in July 2007. In spite of this serious accident, TEPCO still arrogantly overrated their "world best nuclear power technology".

Yet, immediately after the March 11 earthquake violently shook these reactors and the towering waves of a tsunami surged and damaged many buildings of the power station, the myth of the "safe and durable reactor", a myth propagated by TEPCO, was immediately shattered. At the time of writing (mid-March), half of the six reactors seem to be on the verge of melting down, and one of the containment buildings has caught fire due to spent fuel rods combusting. The radiation level in the vicinity of the power station is extremely high, and it is spreading as far as Tokyo and Yokohama. Thus, as every day passes, an unprecedented scale of nuclear disaster is unfolding, making it more and more difficult to arrest the multiple problems of radioactivity.

What went wrong with Japan's nuclear industry? It is often said that the Japanese are hyper-sensitive about nuclear issues because of the experience of the nuclear holocaust in August 1945. On the morning of August 6, 1945 an atomic bomb instantly killed 70,000 to 80,000 civilian residents of Hiroshima city and by the end of 1945, 140,000 residents of that city had died as a result of the bombing. Three days later, another atomic bomb killed about 40,000 civilians in Nagasaki and 70,000 had died by the end of that year. Many others have subsequently died, often after experiencing a lifetime of suffering, or are still suffering from various diseases caused by the blast, fire and radiation.

It is true that the Japanese, in particular the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are very conscious of the danger of nuclear weapons, the most lethal weapons of mass destruction. A-bomb survivors, who know well the terror of the bomb and who are fearful of the long-lasting effects of radiation, have therefore been in the vanguard of the anti-nuclear weapons campaign. Despite this, however, many A-bomb survivors and anti-nuclear weapons activists have so far been indifferent to the nuclear energy issue. Anti-nuclear energy campaigners have long been marginalised in Japan.

For example, a small group of anti-nuclear energy activists in Hiroshima have been actively involved in the movement against the Chugoku Electric Power Company's (CEPCO) plan to build a nuclear power station near Kaminoseki, a beautiful fishing village on Japan's Inland Sea, about 80 km from Hiroshima City. However, they have had virtually no support from any A-bomb survivors' organisations. Nor have either the former or current mayors of Hiroshima, who are widely known as strong advocates for the abolishment of nuclear weapons, ever supported this local anti-nuclear power movement. Indeed they have never expressed concern about the danger of nuclear power accidents. Despite strong opposition by this group of anti-nuclear energy activists in solidarity with the fishermen of Kaminoseki, CEPCO started construction work early this year. (CEPCO temporarily stopped construction work on this site on the day of the earthquake, perhaps indicative of the very great difficulty the nuclear power industry and the government will have in resuming work on nuclear plants following the disasters.)

There are many reasons for this peculiar dichotomy in the anti-nuclear movement in Japan. One reason is that nuclear science was strongly promoted in post-war Japan, in particular after the new American policy of "peaceful use of nuclear energy" was initiated under President Eisenhower in 1953. This was mainly due to Japanese self-reflection about having neglected scientific research during the war. Contemporary Japanese politicians and scientists in particular strongly believed that their nation was defeated in WW2 by American technological science, exemplified by nuclear physics.

This attitude, together with a deep anxiety about the lack of natural energy resources in a nation that relies on imports for 100% of its oil and is the world's largest importer of coal, overtly encouraged Japanese adoption of nuclear energy. Particularly from the late-1960s the Japanese government tried to secure the approval of local communities in remote areas for the construction of nuclear power plants in their regions. The government allocated huge sums to build public facilities such as libraries, hospitals, recreation centres, gymnasiums and swimming pools in areas where local councils accepted a nuclear power station. Power companies paid large sums of money to landowners and fishermen to force them to give up their properties and fishing rights. Political corruption soon became part and parcel of the development of this industry. At the same time, the government and power companies promoted the myth that nuclear power is clean and safe, thereby marginalising the anti-nuclear energy movement.

Although for a short period following the Chernobyl accident in 1986, the anti-nuclear power movement in Japan gained nation-wide support, this quickly subsided following campaigns by the government and the power companies. Despite many accidents since, the seriousness of these incidents was effectively covered up. Consequently there are now 17 nuclear power stations around the earthquake-prone Japanese Archipelago, comprising 54 nuclear reactors which provide 30% of Japan's electricity.

The anti-nuclear movement has been warning of the dangers of a devastating nuclear accident for years, but this has always been met with dismissive assurances of the safety of the reactors. The Fukushima accident has brought to fruition all the fears and predictions previously expressed. In the same way that the atomic bomb indiscriminately killed tens of thousands of civilians, a nuclear reactor accident could be responsible for indiscriminate suffering and death as a consequence of radiation pollution.

Australia and Canada are the two largest uranium suppliers for Japan. Thirty-three percent of Japan's uranium import comes from Australia and 27% from Canada. Australia is faced with the decision of whether to continue exporting uranium even as certain politicians insist that we cannot afford to risk introduction of nuclear power. Surely it is hypocritical to avoid the dangers at home, while benefitting from the export  to other nations? In the same vein, these politicians advocate the need to abolish nuclear weapons, but refuse to ban the mining of uranium.

Japan is not the sole nation responsible for the current nuclear disaster. From the manufacture of the reactors by GE to the provision of uranium by Canada, Australia and others, many nations are implicated. We all should learn from this tragic accident that human beings cannot co-exist with nuclear power, whether it is in the form of weapons or electricity.  The risks and the costs, in dollar terms and in terms of the destruction of human beings and the environment, are excessive.

This catastrophic event could potentially be the catalyst needed to drastically reform Japan's existing socio-economic structure and way of living. As a positive outcome, it could provide the wake-up call and opportunity to redirect the nation on a new course that emphasises green energy development. In the same way that Japan's unique Peace Constitution evolved from the ruins of World War II, this calamity could be used to initiate a hitherto impossible, totally new, peaceful and environmentally harmonious society. Such an optimistic outcome is dependent on the determination and actions of the Japanese people, supported by the whole-hearted assistance of those outside Japan.

(Yuki Tanaka is Research Professor, Hiroshima Peace Institute, Hiroshima City University)

Infochange News & Features, March 2011