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Why Japan Can't Quit Nuclear Power Why Japan Can't Quit Nuclear Power

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Why Japan Can't Quit Nuclear Power

Since the Fukushima meltdown, the country has tried to reduce its reliance on nuclear reactors. But with nearly a third of its energy needs powered by the atom, change is difficult.


Wishful thinking: Antinuclear protesters racked Tokyo but can’t change the basic economics. (AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye)

TOKYO—Hiroko Sata, an 87-year-old nurse, walked out into the Tokyo street on Nov. 11 to see about the commotion. To her left, more than 1,000 people were banging drums and shouting slogans. “What in the world is going on there?” she asked me and my translator, grimacing at the disturbance. The protesters, we told her, had gathered in front of the headquarters of Tokyo Electric Power Co. to commemorate the 20-month anniversary of the disastrous triple-meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in March 2011.

Sata, who is older than Japan’s nearly 60-year-old civilian nuclear industry, remembers a time without nuclear power. Families were allowed just a few lightbulbs in the 1940s, because the electrical system was still in its infancy. “There was a TEPCO office in the neighborhood,” she recalls, and when a bulb burned out, “we had to bring it there” to trade it for a new one. The advent of nuclear power meant that the Japanese could consume as much electricity as they wanted.


Now, behind Sata, the protesters are chanting, “Stop nukes immediately!” and “Shame on you, TEPCO!” Mostly middle-aged, they are braving the rain to crowd in front of TEPCO and other government agencies, including the Economy, Trade, and Industry Ministry, where an antinuclear tent flaps permanently in the wind. All of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors except two were idled after the Fukushima disaster, and protesters do not want them reopened.

Fukushima filled the streets with people. An antinuclear demonstration in Tokyo last July turned out 170,000, larger even than the 1960s protests against a security treaty with the United States. After the earthquake and tsunami that caused the 2011 meltdown, tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered in Tokyo—and thousands more assembled elsewhere across Japan—to demand a permanent shutdown of the nation’s nuclear plants. The antinuclear movement had previously been an insignificant collection of Cassandra-like students, but now demonstrations regularly rack Japan’s cities. In Fukushima, they gather weekly.

Sata regards the crowd. Then she points to the brightly lit high-rise next to her. “If we don’t have the nuclear plants, how is it going to work without electricity?” This is not some false dichotomy dreamed up by an old-timer who remembers a world without much light. Sata may be right: Japan lacks alternate sources of energy that are plentiful and cheap. After 60 years of dependence, the country is economically, historically, and culturally handcuffed to the atom. It has no ready remedy, and even the long-term fixes could break the Japanese economy.


Which may explain why, just a month after the November protest, Japanese voters elected as prime minister Shinzo Abe, who is more open to restarting Japan’s stalled nuclear industry than his predecessor. The election represents a choice that Japan and many other countries have made and will keep making: immediate economic security over long-term safety and environmental concerns. The energy source may vary—in Japan it’s nuclear power, but in the United States it’s fossil fuels, and in the Persian Gulf it’s oil—but the choice is the same. Call it the myopia of power.


In 1953, Dwight Eisenhower delivered his “Atoms for Peace” address at the United Nations, arguing that nukes needn’t be used only for war. But the next year, a U.S. hydrogen-bomb test near the Pacific’s Marshall Islands almost derailed those plans. The nuclear fallout reached a Japanese tuna fishing boat, exposing 23 fishermen and their catch. Many of the crew were hospitalized, and the vessel’s radio operator died several months later. The tragedy—and subsequent fears of contaminated fish entering the market—spurred protests in Japan. Suddenly, “Atoms for Peace” was in danger.

So the Defense Department decided that the U.S. government should build a nuclear reactor in Japan. “A vigorous offensive on the nonwar uses of atomic energy would appear to be a timely and effective way of countering [Russia’s nuclear-weapons program] and minimizing the harm already done in Japan,” declared a Pentagon memo at the time. Civilian nuclear power became the best way to change the subject and cast Washington as the benevolent hegemon. “Now, while the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain so vivid, construction of such a power plant in a country like Japan would be a dramatic and Christian gesture which could lift all of us far above the recollection of the carnage of those cities,” U.S. Atomic Energy Commissioner Thomas Murray said in a major policy address in 1954. It was the first time a U.S. nuclear policymaker had publicly floated the idea of building a reactor in Japan.

At first, antinuclear sentiment in Japan was strong. By the end of that year, 34 million people—more than half of eligible Japanese voters—had signed a petition in favor of banning nuclear weapons. But the United States and a few prominent Japanese supporters were determined to sell the peaceful atom to Japan, separating military concerns from energy. Media mogul Matsutarō Shōriki used his newspaper, Yomiuri Shimbun, to advance the cause. (One rumor held that he was a CIA agent.) The newspaper, along with the U.S. Embassy, cosponsored an exhibit welcoming the atom back to Japan that regularly attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors, even in Hiroshima, as it traveled around the country. By the beginning of 1956, the pendulum of Japanese public opinion had swung in the other direction, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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