After years of muzzling critics and hiding accidents, Japan discovers the damage of keeping under wraps all things nuclear. And fear is now reaching the rest of the world.
Tokaimura: until today, this name symbolized the Japanese nuclear threat. That's where Japan's first nuclear plant was built, in the Ibaraki prefecture, south of Sendai, the city that was washed away by the recent tsunami. The plant was built in 1960 by Tepco, Tokyo's electricity company and owner of the Fukushima site, where three reactors have been damaged in recent days. In 1999, Tokaimura was the scene of a major accident, which became a symbol of the gap between Japanese atomic bureaucracy and public opinion.
On September 20, 1999, poorly trained Tepco employees triggered a nuclear meltdown after using about 16 kilograms of uranium, far above the secure amount of 2.3 kg. Two employees died, hundreds suffered the effects of radiation, and a kilometer-wide security zone was cordoned off. At the time, Japanese environmentalists used the accident to plead their case, reminding the public that another accident had already taken place in 1974 on the Japanese nuclear-fueled cargo ship Mutsu.
"We thought that the public would finally start to question building new plants," remembers Greenpeace Japan's spokesman, Junichi Sato. But nothing changed. The 1990's may have ended with a major nuclear accident, but it was still Japan's most "nuclear" decade with more than 20 reactors built (out of the 54 that were working before the tsunami). Nuclear energy went from 9% to about 30% of all the country's energy production.
How was that possible in a country still traumatized by nuclear disasters? How is it that the same authorities who call for global denuclearization every August as they remember the 1945 nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have shown such lack of vigilance?
The answer lies in two words: energy independence. This is a major issue for an island deprived of other energy resources, which wants to remain among the three largest economies in the world.
"Despite being brought up in the horror of a nuclear attack and the 250,000 deaths in Hiroshima, the Japanese have never managed to challenge the energy-industrial lobby," Mindy Kotler, an American researcher told Le Temps back in 2002. At the time, two other issues were also undermining the world's third nuclear power's reputation: Mox, the mixed fuel based on plutonium and uranium chosen by Japan, and the Rokkasho-Mura nuclear waste treatment facility built by Japan Nuclear Fuels in cooperation with French nuclear giant Areva on the northern coast in Aomori, another tsunami-prone area.
There were several protests and the Democratic Party also joined the fight. But again, the nuclear lobby held its ground. Cities that hosted plants were silenced with subsidies. The nuclear audit committee created in 2000 by the Industry Ministry toed the line. The arguments were hard to contest: the necessity to protect the island from an oil blockade (in the context of the Iraq war,) and the importance of securing its position as a nuclear giant next to China and Russia. Then French President Jacques Chirac, a Japan lover, won Tokyo's financial support to build the innovative thermonuclear reactor Iter in the South of France, whose director happens to be Japanese.
The rest, the deals with electricity companies in Tokyo (tepco) and Kansai (Kepco) or the compromises of the Lib-Dem Party, which has been in power almost uninterrupted since the war, will surely feed revelations in the Japanese media in the coming months. It will also trigger a heightened consciousness, emergency measures and criticism across the country.
In the United States, an ally and protector of Japan, Senator Joe Lieberman asked for a pause in developing plants while pointing out the United States' successful security track record. In Spain, Greenpeace called on its government to move forward with its promise to close six of the country's plants. In the UK, authorities asked the country's nuclear regulator "to look very carefully at the Japanese experience and to learn any lessons that we can." Austria requested that its nuclear plants undergo "resistance tests."
But the most awaited European voice in this debate is that of Germany, where Angela Merkel's government voted in favor of extending the life of its 17 reactors back in the fall of 2009, reversing plans to shut them down by 2020, a decision that had been made under Gerhard Schroder, her Social Democratic predecessor. Merkel who will be facing several important regional elections this year, promised to debate nuclear safety in her country, and in the EU -- even as she noted that Europe was not prone to earthquakes.
Read the original article in French
Photo - (Gabriel Rodriguez)