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Japan

As If Nothing Happened, Japan Goes Nuclear Again

Although 80 percent of the population would like to see the end of nuclear power in Japan, electrical companies are gradually reopening their plants.

At the stricken Fukushima plant (IAEA)
At the stricken Fukushima plant (IAEA)
Philippe Pons

The recent reopening of one of the nuclear reactors at Oi Power Plant (west of Honshu, Japan's main island) and of another on July 18 has marked the end of the suspension period of Japan's nuclear energy program. Following the catastrophe on March 11, 2011 at the Fukushima power plant, around 50 plants on the archipelago were gradually halted for temporary maintenance and the reinforcement of security measures.

The reopening, which will be the first of many, was judged premature by experts: the catastrophe in Fukushima, prompted by the devastating tsunami and the most serious since Chernobyl in 1986, was said to have been caused by human negligence. In a damning report published on July 5, a study commissioned by the parliament concluded that the catastrophe was a "man made disaster:" the result of collusion between the State and its private interests and an under-estimation of risks.

Seismologists warned against the reopening of one of the power plant's reactors in Oi, which is located close to an active fault line. The plant's operator Kansai Electric Co. itself has acknowledged that the reinforcement of security measures would not be finished before 2015. According to a study by the Genpatsu-zero group (Zero Nuclear Power), formed by members of parliament from different sides of the political spectrum, half of the country's reactors are vulnerable to earthquakes and should be closed down. For Mitsuhisa Watanabe, professor of geomorphology at the University of Tokyo: "the competence and impartiality of experts at the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency are questionable."

The nuclear lobby makes a comeback

According to polls, 80 percent of Japanese people would like a quick closure of all nuclear power plants, a demand that is starting to be made heard by citizens. Regardless of the opposition, the nuclear lobby is currently claiming back the approval of an indecisive and weakened government, and closing in on the conservative opposition following the recent departure of around 50 of its members. This political crisis marks the demise of the first change in government in half a century, when the Democratic Party came to power in 2009, says political scientist Jiro Yamaguchi. Inexperience, clumsiness, procrastination, and a confused and ill-advised management were the causes of the catastrophe on March 11 2011: in three years, the Democratic Party has lost all credit and disappointed many.

Concerning nuclear energy, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has adopted an ambiguous position, which was deemed "inconsistent" by daily newspaper Asahi. Favoring a progressive denuclearization, he declared that it would be done "to the extent possible."

"The government is acting as if nothing happened. As if we can forget it without learning anything from it: something that Japan is all too familiar with," says Kenzaburo Oe, Nobel Prize for Literature, making a reference to Japan's responsibilities in the war.

People are indecisive, worried and dubitative. The municipalities that welcomed the power plants now fear that their subsidies may disappear if they are not put back into operation. Elsewhere, a pronuclear governor has just been elected in the prefecture of Kagoshima, in southern Japan. The business world has incredible power regarding the reopening of the power plants, claiming that a shortage of nuclear energy will cripple the industry. Electricity companies, for whom downtime of nuclear power means a loss of earnings, are now threatening power cuts.

An antinuclear movement with no political leverage

In a report published on June 20, Fukushima power plant operator Tepco exonerated itself from all responsibility, which doesn't sit well with the parliamentary commission and the 100,000 people evacuated from their homes that had become contaminated, including the thousands of parents whose children will have to endure thyroid tests for years to test for radiation.

As for the taxpayers, they will have to pay for the guilty managers of Tepco. The company will be nationalized in the provision of $12.8 billion from the State in order to avoid a failure, which would subsequently impact creditor banks. Many of its senior managers have already found a place in other companies and turned over a new leaf.

Denial, assurances that no one believes and complacency hardly makes the Japanese people feel that they can trust those in power. About 7.5 million Japanese people signed a petition demanding the end of nuclear power in their country. But the antinuclear movement barely has any political leverage: the social-democrats and communists are weak, the majority of democrats are divided and Rengo, the large workers' union, is paralyzed by its electrical company employees.

Demands for local referendums on the nuclear issue have been rejected by the municipalities of Osaka and Tokyo. Protesting is the only resort for the antinuclear activists: a phenomenon that reveals the "sorry state of Japanese democracy," writes Asahi, which is calling for politicians to listen to those in the street.

Read more from Le Monde.

Photo - IAEA

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