An anti-nuclear protester holds an umbrella decorated with chemical symbols during a march towards the Diet building in Tokyo late last year. Pic: AP.

The story of nuclear power in Japan is one fraught with complexity. The country’s introduction to the power of the atom came in the shape of wholesale death and destruction, the likes of which had never been seen before. Yet not even 10 years after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the Japanese government allocated 230 million yen for a new nuclear energy program. The first commercial reactor in Japan went online in 1966 and the country eventually built 54 operational atomic power plants, supplying around 30% of its energy needs with future goals of an even higher percentage. Then in March of 2011 the Fukushima disaster happened, putting the brakes on the expansion of nuclear power and resulting in the shutdown of every operational plant in the nation.

It’s strange to think that the only victim of a full-on nuclear attack in the history of the world would become one of the largest proponents and users of nuclear power. It couldn’t have been an easy sell in the wake of the Second World War and it surely isn’t one now. Yet, even in the era of Chernobyl, Japan did not back down from atomic energy use. Perhaps it was overconfidence or the somewhat insular nature of an island nation, which has traditionally seen itself as exceptional in many ways. Or perhaps Japan’s characteristic lack of government transparency was the key to selling nuclear power in a country that lived under the unique specter of having been ravaged by atomic bombs.

Fukushima temporary waste storage. Pic: Ricardo Herrgott/Global 2000 (Flickr CC)

A Nuclear Vox Populi

As of today there are no nuclear reactors online in Japan, despite efforts by politicians and the industry to get back on track. Interestingly, the Japanese people elected a pro-nuclear prime minister in Shinzo Abe, yet they remain understandably skeptical of something that has caused so much damage to their country and individual psyches.

However paternalistic its attitudes may be, the government of Japan would do well to listen to the wishes of its people when it comes to nuclear power. Yes, the benefits of the energy source are well known, especially in a country that relies on imports for 84% of its energy needs. But the dangers of nuclear power can no longer be swept under the rug or hidden behind a government-created myth of safety.

At least let the people know about not only the risks of nuclear energy, but also the full results of the Fukushima disaster. The Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) have been notoriously tight-lipped about both what happened in the immediate wake of the disaster and ongoing developments in containing it. As a result, public trust in the government and TEPCO remains low and when earthquakes and tsunamis continue to threaten the region around Fukushima, that trust is not likely to recover any time soon.

IAEA experts visit Fukushima. Pic: IAEA Imagebank

Continuing Threat

Over three years on, the dangers coming from the four damaged reactors at Fukushima-Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant have not gone away. Scientists and authorities simply do not know how to ensure the safety of the area. A recent $316 million plan to surround the damaged reactors in a wall of ice in order to block the flow of contaminated water in the basements of the plant has been met with doubts from some nuclear experts. Any and all work containing or stopping the leaks, while necessary, is dangerous and costly. Meanwhile, a planned lift of restrictions for the return of inhabitants to villages surrounding Fukushima has been delayed due to residents’ concerns. Further concerns have surfaced about debris from the disaster contaminating rice crops. Luckily, the contaminated rice crops reportedly never reached the market.

The recent ruling by the Fukushima district court that TEPCO pay the family of a suicide victim 45m yen (US$433,000) in damages further demonstrates Japan’s complex relationship with nuclear power. The court found that 58-year-old Hamako Watanabe’s forced evacuation from her home resulted in Watanabe’s depression and suicide by self-immolation. The case highlights the different types of risks nuclear energy poses vs. other kinds of power.

Renewable Japan?

In an era of looming climate concerns, dwindling oil supplies and nuclear fears, renewable energy is an increasingly appealing option. The market in solar energy products has blown up in Japan, and good prospects exist for geothermal and wind power, yet Shinzo Abe’s government is pushing coal. You might think a nationalist and populist like Abe could at least see the political benefit of increased energy independence without nuclear power, which has not always been kind to his country.

Fukushima memorial at the European Parliament. Pic: greensefa (Flickr CC)