Most critics of nuclear power in Japan argue that the country has too many earthquakes and tsunamis to operate nuclear power plants safely. Needless to say, these critics are right: building nuclear plants in such a seismically unstable place is a bad idea, especially when one takes into account the population density and small size of the country. However, the most important reasons why nuclear power cannot be safely utilized in Japan are human, not geological. Foremost among these human factors is Japan’s peculiar industrial-bureaucratic partnership, which, in turn, influences the country’s educational system and its media.
These human factors guarantee that when nuclear plants are built, they will not be built to the necessary safety standards. They guarantee that, once built, plants will not be properly inspected, regulated or maintained. Finally, they guarantee that when accidents occur, they will not be resolved in a timely and effective manner. Of course, all of this was brought into stark relief by the crisis at Fukushima Daiichi, but it was also evident in previous accidents at Tokaimura and Monju.
Before I explain why I believe Japan is unsuited to managing nuclear power, let me be clear about my biases: I am against nuclear power, full stop. Until a method is devised to safely store nuclear waste or render it harmless, I do not think nuclear power plants should be built anywhere. However, I do believe that there are countries where nuclear power plants can be operated with a higher degree of true regulation than in Japan, with a correspondingly greater degree of public safety.
To be fair, the situation in Japan is not entirely unique. Due to the huge amount of capital that is involved in nuclear power, the industry almost invariably seeks an unnatural influence on the political system wherever it exists. However, Japan is unique in organizing itself so that, rather than having to seek power through various semi-legal or illegal means, generally known as “regulatory capture,” the nuclear power industry in Japan holds sway over government by design. By looking closely at this situation, one gains insight into the political-economic structure of Japan as a whole.
The following is a brief list of reasons why nuclear power plants cannot be operated safely in Japan.
Amakudari: Japan’s system of "amakudari" (literally, “descent from heaven”), in which bureaucrats retire from their ministries to take up lucrative positions in the companies they formerly "regulated," means that there is no real distinction between regulator and regulated in Japan. Indeed, it’s probably fair to say that certain powerful industries actually regulate the ministries that are tasked with regulating them in Japan. There is a simple reason for this, which anyone who has ever lived in Japan will immediately understand: in Japan, "sempai" is for life. Keep in mind that the retired bureaucrats who have become industry executives remain "sempai" to the younger bureaucrats who remain in the ministries (their former "kohai"). It is unthinkable that these "kohai" could effectively regulate their former "sempai" — for it would involve an inversion of one of the most fundamental relationships in Japanese life. Perhaps no industry is as rife with "amakudari" as the nuclear industry. TEPCO is typical, with four company vice presidents between 1959 and 2010 coming from Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Commission, the main ministry tasked with overseeing the nuclear industry.
Capitalist-Development State Structure: On its face, "amakudari" seems like a perversion of the proper relationship between ministries and industries, but it’s important to realize that Japan’s ministries were never intended to regulate industry, rather, they were intended to promote industry. This is an aspect of what Japanologists like Karel van Wolferen and Chalmers Johnson call the “capitalist development state,” in which the state actively fosters the growth of selected industries through a partnership between industry and bureaucracy (ministries). In this relationship, regulation is seen an impediment to the growth of industry and is, therefore, performed as a charade, if it is performed at all.
Once again, Japan’s nuclear industry is a perfect example of how this plays out in practice. The electrical power companies that operate Japan’s nuclear power stations, including TEPCO, are under the "control" of two ministries in Japan, the most important of which is the Nuclear Industry and Safety Commission, which itself is under the Ministry of Trade, Economy and Industry (METI). The explicit goal of METI is to promote industrial growth and nuclear power, which makes it unthinkable that METI would ever force the power companies to build safer plants or to perform rigorous and costly maintenance and upgrades. But the ministries’ role goes far beyond a simple laissez-faire approach to the nuclear industry. This year alone, the Nuclear Safety and Trade Commission budgeted $12 million for a campaign to sell the public on the safety of nuclear power. More alarmingly, a former official at this same ministry recently admitted pressuring power companies to send employees to public symposiums on nuclear power to ask questions and make statements favorable to nuclear power.
Lack of Decisive Government: In his book "The Enigma of Japanese Power," van Wolferen observed that Japan “has no steering wheel” (hence, the real governing power in Japan is an enigma). Van Wolferen argued that power is dispersed among so many different entities and agencies that no one person or agency can actually govern the country. In the days following the Great East Japan Earthquake, as the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi plant spiraled out of control, this lack of effective leadership was made painfully clear. For three days following the accident, Prime Minister Naoto Kan left the handling of the nuclear emergency to TEPCO and only intervened when there was a catastrophic explosion at the unit 3 reactor (the one containing MOX fuel). Still, it wasn’t until six days after the earthquake that representatives from the ministries tasked with overseeing nuclear power met with officials from the Prime Minister’s Office and the heads of TEPCO. Astonishingly, this meeting only took place at the urging of American officials, who were appalled at Japan’s disorganized and lethargic response.
Culture of Secrecy and Internal Loyalty: Perhaps no society on earth values group loyalty as highly as the Japanese do. This means that very few Japanese people are willing to betray their group to act as whistleblowers. In the event that some brave individual does dare to break the code of silence of his or her company or organization, he or she is often treated with contempt by the establishment. A classic example is the story of Kei Sugaoka, an American nisei employed by General Electric to work at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. In 2000, Sugaoka reported problems at the plant to the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, who, rather than acting on his tips, promptly informed TEPCO, which blackballed Sugaoka from working in the Japanese nuclear industry. As I have noted above, Japanese industries and ministries work together in partnership; in this case, the bureaucrats put their loyalty to their industry partners above their legal obligations to protect the identity of whistleblowers, not to mention their responsibility to ensure the safety of Japan’s nuclear power plants.
Contempt for Democratic Process and the Public’s Right to Know: One result of Japan’s culture of secrecy and internal loyalty is a marked contempt for democratic process and the public’s right to know. This is perfectly illustrated by the way the Japanese government and TEPCO have dealt with informing the public about the disaster: information has been withheld, doctored or released too late to do any good. For example, within a few days of the tsunami, TEPCO and the Japanese government knew that at least two of the reactors at Fukushima had melted down. However, this information was only released to the public in late May and early June, shortly before the International Atomic Energy Agency was due to visit Japan. An official from that agency said, “It is extremely regrettable that this sort of important information was not released to the public until three months after the fact, and only then in materials for a conference overseas.”
No Free Press: Japan’s media suffers from a variety of forms of censorship, both internally applied (self-censorship) and externally applied (through intimidation by the yakuza and the "uyoku" or right wing). The press in Japan has long been loathe to print articles critical of the nuclear industry, and, since the disaster, they have generally followed the government’s line when reporting on the disaster. As a result, the Japanese public is woefully underinformed about the risks of nuclear power.
Corrupted Academics: The Japanese nuclear industry has a long history of giving financial support to academic institutions and individual professors in order to influence their research and views on nuclear power. Tokyo University (Todai), the incubator of Japan’s political and executive class, has benefited more than any other institution from the nuclear industry’s largesse: an astonishing number of Todai professors and administrators leave the university to take up positions at TEPCO (a form of academic "amakudari"), including the former president of Todai, Komiyama Hiroshi, who now holds the position of auditor at TEPCO. Furthermore, it is alleged that Todai receives up to $5 million annually in contributions from TEPCO. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that two Todai professors recently appeared on national TV in Japan to declare that plutonium is no more dangerous than table salt.
Passive Population: Japan’s present-day population is famously passive and unwilling to challenge the powers that be. An interesting example of this can be seen in the public’s response to the actions of Taro Yamamoto, an actor-turned-activist, who led a march on the Saga prefectural government office to protest that government’s sending of fake emails to curry favor for nuclear power. A popular video of his group storming the office received about 60 percent dislikes on YouTube Japan, and the most common reason given for disliking the video was that “Yamamoto-san did not make an appointment.” This sort of reaction evinces an astonishing degree of deeply conditioned obedience to authority that must be the envy of dictators the world over. Because the majority of the population is unwilling to challenge the existing power structure in Japan, that very same power structure feels no need to look out for the safety of the population.
Given all of the above, it is absurd to believe that nuclear power plants can be operated safely in Japan. Of course, since the disaster struck in March, the government of Japan has come under pressure to reevaluate its nuclear policy. Most recently, before he left office, Kan floated the idea of a nuclear-free Japan. However, this proposal is likely to whither in the face of the deeply entrenched pro-nuclear interests that form a structural element of the Japanese government. Indeed, it is hard to imagine ridding the country of nuclear power without having to redesign the entire social system. The tentacles of Japan’s “nuclear village” have corrupted the culture from top to bottom, as surely as radiation from Fukushima Daiichi has been dispersed from Hokkaido to Kyushu and beyond.
This article was first published in the September 2011 issue of Kansai Scene.© Japan Today