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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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020


Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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