Japan’s nuclear quandary

Author: Sheila A Smith, CFR

The Kan cabinet is facing a defining moment in Japan’s postwar nuclear debate.

With the bulk of nuclear reactors now offline, the country is holding its breath over how Prime Minister Naoto Kan will proceed. Difficulties continue at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Dangerous levels of radiation have been reported in the No. 1 and No. 2 reactors, and new sources of food, this time beef, have been taken off the market by the Japanese government with dire consequences for livestock producers in the stricken regions.

The short-term prognosis for Japan’s electricity supply is uncertain, yet it is the longer term effort to reform Japan’s energy policy that is the key to resolving the current impasse. Public confidence in Japan’s nuclear industry was shattered by the disaster at Fukushima, and until the reactors are fully cooled it is unlikely that the full impact of this disaster will be appreciated. In the meantime, decisions need to be made, and Japan’s energy supply needs to be assured.

The current political malaise in Tokyo will make reforming government oversight of the nuclear industry a prolonged — and highly charged — political fight. Japan’s government is hoping for a political compromise with local leaders as they seek to rewrite the procedures and the oversight mechanisms that will ensure a Fukushima-scale accident will not be repeated.

But the effort to persuade local communities to restart nuclear reactors has faltered. Kan himself derailed this effort when he suggested that past practices of safety testing were insufficient, and that Japan ought to develop a ‘stress test’ similar to those used in Europe to ascertain the safety of Japan’s aging nuclear reactors. And making matters worse are revelations public polls have been rigged by the Kyushu Electric Power Company, also implicating a local governor.

Thus, the government’s hope that Japan’s nuclear reactors would be brought slowly back online this summer has been dashed. Moreover, instead of working with the government, opposition party leaders seem hell bent on painting Kan as an anti-nuclear activist and hurling personal insults at Banri Kaieda (Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry) in Parliament.

Such politics are likely to intensify further. There is deep public anger with the nuclear policies of the past and the inability of the Kan government to bring an end to the Fukushima dangers.

Partisan politics aside, public confidence in industry and government has plummeted. A broader debate in Japan is unfolding, and the temptation is to draw the battle lines so that industry and government are on one side and Japan’s citizens are on the other. But this would be a flawed — and from a policy perspective, deeply damaging — premise.

Japan has been here before. As Japan’s business and government leaders consider how to move forward today, it might be helpful to look back and remember that the trade-off between Japan’s economic vibrancy and the health of Japan’s citizens has already been demonstrated to be a false dichotomy. In the early 1970s Japan confronted a similar moment of reckoning when environmental damage created serious health risks for communities in proximity to industrial sites. At that time, the national government refused to mediate the conflict, writing it off as a local problem. Eventually Japan’s courts weighed in on the liability of companies that had polluted the streams and waters by filling them with mercury and other poisons, destroying the health of Japanese citizens. The end result was a reformulation of industrial regulation, and some of the best technologies and practices for environmental protection to emerge in the 20th century.

But the 1970s also produced evidence of proactive leadership in Japan. During that decade, Japan’s economy was buffeted by extraordinary ‘shocks’ emanating from the global market. The world’s currency markets were upended, the US embargoed soybean exports, and, perhaps the greatest blow, oil prices skyrocketed. Yet Japan’s industry and government initiated wholesale reforms — restructuring the industry and introducing the energy conservation measures that today have made Japan one of the leading global forces in environmental technologies. Japan demonstrated its capacity to be far more resilient and innovative than any other advanced industrial society in energy conservation approaches, all while assiduously implementing new environmental protection policies. The quality of air and water in Japan was largely restored within a decade, and new and globally-competitive technologies emerged.

Today, the imperative for devising better safeguards for nuclear energy is abundantly clear. With transparent safeguards, and robust oversight mechanisms, local leaders and communities may be better positioned to sign on to the short-term energy needs of the country. Japan’s nuclear industry has a major role to play in the national effort to ensure the safety of its reactors.

Global efforts to devise a scientific standard for evaluating radiation exposure are also long overdue. Here Japan must lead the way. Falling back on political expediency, cutting corners and rehashing yesterday’s politics — the very practices that many think may have led to this crisis — is no solution. Innovation in policy management, coupled with a credible demonstration that safety and efficiency can go hand-in-hand, offers a more constructive approach to reassuring Japan’s citizens that nuclear power is safe.

Underneath the heightened emotions on display in Japan’s nuclear debate, the nation is deeply divided over what Fukushima Daiichi means for Japan’s future. Most Japanese understand that the development of nuclear energy was indispensable to their economic development strategy in the past, but the role of nuclear energy in Japan’s future remains to be seen. For the moment, devising factually correct assessments of the state of Japan’s reactors is paramount. Beyond that is a broader global conversation on how to ensure the safety of nuclear power.

We should not forget that Japan’s nuclear debate is not simply about energy policy. The anniversaries of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima (6 August) and Nagasaki (9 August) force a moment of deep and troubling reflection for many Japanese, and are national memorials that continue to produce unequivocal statements about Japan’s continued commitment to rid the world of nuclear weapons. This year, crafting Japan’s nuclear message will be far more difficult. The entire nation will be listening. We should be, too.

Sheila A. Smith is a senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This is an adapted version of an article first published here on the Council on Foreign Relations’ Asia Unbound blog.

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