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Tuesday, 8 September 2015

INSIGHT: Failing to see dangers of nuclear power right under one's nose

Fifty-three months after the fateful nuclear disaster, the Sendai nuclear power plant in Kagoshima Prefecture has become the first in Japan to resume after all were taken offline for safety inspections.

But the restart callously disregards the lives of so many people who were uprooted from their irreplaceable ancestral land, jobs, families and friends by the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in 2011.

Inspections of nuclear facilities certainly became more stringent after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. But that is no guarantee of their safety. An “unforeseeable” event may occur at any moment, and the cost will be too tragically enormous for anyone to grasp.

Why does the government not want to face up to that fact in earnest? And what about the public, which is allowing the government to move in that direction? While I was furious about these issues, I had the chance to attend a preview of a movie. Seeing it was like getting smacked up the side of the head.

Titled “Tenku no Hachi” (The Big Bee), the action epic, which features an act of terrorism on a nuclear plant, is based on a work of fiction by Keigo Higashino, a best-selling author.

To my surprise, the work both fully and scrupulously presented all the major problems of nuclear power generation that came under the public spotlight after the Fukushima disaster, such as the vulnerability of spent nuclear fuel storage pools, the fictional nature of the safety myth about nuclear power and the merciless way nuclear plants are being forced on depopulated communities in exchange for subsidies.

The original book was written 20 years ago.

Higashino has commented on the work as follows: After his initial plan for it, he spent five years conducting a lot of research on the issue. He was filled with confidence when he finished writing the novel, but received no reaction at all. He thought that, obviously, his work was being ignored on purpose.

If somebody was purposefully “ignoring” the work, who was it?

I encountered the issue of nuclear power generation for the first time 27 years ago, when I was a reporter based in The Asahi Shimbun’s Takamatsu bureau in Kagawa Prefecture.

An “output modulation test” was staged at Shikoku Electric Power Co.’s Ikata nuclear power plant in Ehime Prefecture.

A nuclear reactor continues to generate electric power at constant levels day and night, so there is a nighttime surplus of electricity. The test was conducted to raise and lower output levels to enhance efficiency.

Opponents of nuclear power generation reacted angrily to what they argued was a “dangerous” experiment. Thousands of people arrived from all parts of Japan to stage a boisterous protest outside Shikoku Electric’s head office in Takamatsu on the day of the test.

A senior colleague of mine, who had been engaged in a student movement, appeared excited, as he said he was seeing a protest for the first time in a long while. However, local residents gave a chilly reception to the abrupt emergence of the hippie-like band of protesters, which was an uncommon sight.

"What are we supposed to do when all these outsiders suddenly show up and tell us this and that?” went the typical refrain.

I was, frankly, also fed up with the protesters.

The general thinking at the time was: “Japan has great technology. Speaking of possible accidents won’t get you anywhere. After all, modern life is impossible without nuclear power. ”

The anti-nuclear agenda was an unrealistic argument being made by only a few, and was less than catchy as far as news reporting was concerned.

No sooner did I write a halfhearted article about the protest than I returned to covering the police beat--making morning and evening calls to the homes of police detectives in a desperate bid to learn about hidden cases they were pursuing.

That was the way to scoop the competition and enhance my standing at the newspaper. I never attempted, then or afterward, to look into the dilemma of nuclear power generation, although I would have had access to, if only I had sought, a trove of public documents and other materials.

I didn’t even know how many nuclear reactors Japan had, and in which parts of the country, when I was confronted by the Fukushima disaster.

If our eyes are clouded and we are only eager to read the situation and act smartly, we don't see anything even if something important is hanging right under our noses or if hints are tossed out in our direction.

We use the phrase “nuclear village” to refer to a community of people who rely on benefits generated by the nuclear power industry, which actually represents a major national project. It is exactly those people that created the safety myth and ended up causing the latest disaster. Higashino may have had the nuclear village in mind as the culprit for ignoring the presence of his book.

After all, I was also possibly a member of the nuclear village. I relied on the safety myth as an excuse for looking away from the sorrow and dilemma of those whom nuclear plants were being forced upon, taking the convenient availability of electric power for granted and continuing to scoff at a deluge of alarms.

I was part of the group of people who ignored Higashino’s work, which he had produced with all his might and competence.

One phrase has long stuck in my mind.

I visited a community last year that lies about a 10-kilometer radius from the disaster site. Its deserted landscapes that were frozen in time and were silently tumbling away appeared so eerie that a lump formed in my throat as I realized the exorbitant price of an affluent life.

I blurted out to a local resident who was guiding me around, “Can you forgive Japan for moving to restart its nuclear reactors, oblivious of a disaster of this magnitude?”

The resident remained silent for a while and then muttered, “If nobody changes, nothing will probably ever change.”

Will I be able to change? Will I be able to keep myself separate from the popular sentiment of the time, refuse to conform to the general trend, look at what I should look at and say what I should say?

Source: Asahi Shimbun

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