Saturday 18 June 2011

Atomic Village

Dear Friends,
Novelist, Murakami Haruki, spoke at an awards ceremony in Spain last week. He's drawn criticism for blaming the Japanese people for condoning the way the nuclear industry is run. In Italy a referendum has come out overwhelmingly against nuclear power and after public debate Germany has decided to phase out nuclear power. I hear there are demonstrations at Tokyo Electric's offices in Tokyo but  there's amazingly little debate going on here.

The IAEA recently submitted its report to the Japanese government. It calls for better ways to deal with tsunami and for independent regulators.  But this is nothing new.

I've just been re-reading Sato Eisaku's book, The Annihilation of a Governor (Chji no Massatsu  知事の抹殺, Heibonsha 2009). Sato used to be governor of Fukushima prefecture, a good friend of my husband and an acquaintance of mine. He was finally brought down in a scandal where his brother sold some land to a construction company for far more than the market price allegedly to secure building contracts. But Sato maintains that it was a conspiracy, that the Tokyo Prosecutors' Office had it in for him because of his longstanding opposition to central government and the nuclear industry.

It makes interesting reading. He says the nuclear industry was controlled at the top levels of the government, that local authorities had no say and were the last to hear of any irregularities. He chronicles a list of accidents: in 1989 a bolt fell off in the cooling pump of Reactor 3 (not any bolt: it weighed 30 kilograms) but the accident was covered up for a week, the government decided to leave it where it was, and Tomioka-machi, where the plant is, only got to hear of it in a roundabout way from the prefecture Then there was the 'bucket' accident in 1999 at Tokaimura, just over the border from Fukushima, in which untrained workers bypassed regulations and dissolved uranium oxide in buckets rather than the dissolution tank and  to speed things up tipped the solution directly into the precipitation tank. Two workers died. In 2001 a pipe was found to be cracked at the Hamaoka Plant but the Safety Agency instructed the plant to keep going. Sato comments, 'It's not a safety agency but a promotion agency'. Then in 2002 the news (from a whistle blower) that for many years Tokyo Electric had been faking records at Fukushima Daiichi and Daini regarding breakdowns and cracks.

Sato becomes increasingly angry at the way the government bulldozes through nuclear policy with little regard for the locals and their safety.  'Atomic Village' (genshimura 原子村)is the name he gives to the collusion between the government, the electric power companies, and the Nuclear Safety Agency (Hoanin 保安員) which is not independent but part of METI (Keisansho 経産省) the Ministry that promotes nuclear power!You can also add the media who have long taken part in junkets financed by the electric companies and towed the government line.

But Sato also points to what he calls 'structural paternalism' endemic in Japan where people put their trust in the government and big companies - even when workers are stirring radioactive materials with buckets! 

So Japan has not seen the liberalisation and privatisation we have seen in Europe. The electric companies have a monopoly not only on the generation but also the supply of electricity. In England I can choose where to buy my power. Here I have to buy it from Tohoku Electric. There is no low rate night electricity. No Smart Grid. The east of the country (from Tokyo north) uses 50 Hz, the west 60 Hz, with only one transforming station. The way contracts are written, companies that have their own generators can't use them in a power cut. Things are slanted in favour of the electric companies in an uncompetitive environment.

The direct cause of the accident was the tsunami. The plant stood up to the earthquake but the cooling systems failed as the back up electricity was all on site and flooded. But behind this is a history of complacency with regard to safety. Currently only 17 of the country's 54 nuclear reactors are in operation. Regulations say that they must be closed for safety checks after 13 months. Those that closed for routine checks after the Fukushima accident have not yet reopened. If this goes on there will be no reactors operating next spring so the govenment has today asked that they be reopened. It remains to be seen whether the locals, or the population at large, will agree.

Three earthquakes today. A short sharp jolt around midday and a long roll (Force 4) at half past eight this evening.


  1. I was reading the news the other day here in Australia an they were saying how the government here has decided to consider nuclear energy, building some nuclear plants in our sydney and western australia as well!! Shock, horror. Have they not learnt anything from Fukushima! If that happens I'll be moving...

  2. Bear in mind though that the liberalization and privatization that you speak of in the UK also took place with the rail companies. There's no doubt in my mind that Japan's rail network is superior to the UK's. No simple answers but government corruption and appalling safety records speak for themselves.

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