The Japanese Nuclear Lobby: A Bad Reputation

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.

Walking past the Hiroshima Memorial (Gabriel Rodriguez)
Walking past the Hiroshima Memorial (Gabriel Rodriguez)
Richard Werly

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)

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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