Japan's Nuclear Cartel Atomic Industry Too Close to Government for Comfort


Part 2: A Threat to Japan's Democracy

Both the nuclear industry and its government regulators are also closely intertwined with the political sphere. TEPCO's management is among the key campaign donors to the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Meanwhile, the union that represents workers in the electricity industry supports Prime Minister Kan's Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). So far neither of the two parties has taken a position critical of the nuclear industry.

It's as if Austrian writer Robert Jungk's horrific vision of the "nuclear state" had become reality. In his book "The Nuclear State," once required reading for Germany's protest generation, Jungk describes how a high-risk technology can erode a democracy, even without a nuclear disaster. Many of the protesters who faced water cannons, batons and concertina wire during demonstrations in the 1970s and 1980s at German sites like the Brokdorf nuclear power plant near Hamburg, already felt as if they were living in the dreaded surveillance state.

Germany was ultimately spared Jungk's vision, but in Japan it has proven to be prophetic. In a consensus-based society, the nuclear industry, electric utilities, political parties and scientists have created a sacrosanct refuge for themselves that has become a threat to Japan's democracy.

It is clear that wheeling and dealing in the Atomic Village played a role in the Fukushima disaster. According to TEPCO's calculations, the maximum possible height of a tsunami in Fukushima was 5.7 meters. The company acted on the authority of a committee made up of members of Japan's engineering society. But a majority of the commission's 35 members had once worked for electric utilities or think tanks funded by the utilities.

'The Japanese Public Is Partly Responsible'

Even many media organizations, as recipients of generous payments for the electricity industry, are part of the cartel. "The Japanese public is partly responsible for the disaster in Fukushima," says activist Yukio Yamaguchi. Nature triggered the catastrophe, but Japan itself created the conditions that allowed it to happen, he says.

Ironically, hardly any country on earth is more poorly suited for high-risk nuclear technology than earthquake-plagued Japan. A folk legend describes the islands as being perched on the back of a giant fish in the ocean, a fish that is constantly trembling and twitching -- not a good basis for operating the world's third-largest collection of nuclear reactors. Only the United States and France have more nuclear plants.

Nevertheless, until disaster struck Japan continued to forge ambitious expansion plans. To reach its goal of producing half of all the electricity it consumes with nuclear energy by 2030, the country had planned to build a double-digit number of new reactors.

The oil shock of the 1970s came as a wakeup call for Japan, a rising industrial nation at the time. It prompted the government to define the development of a strong nuclear industry as a national goal. Since then, Japanese politicians have inextricably linked the country's rise to prominence and prosperity with nuclear energy.

Buoyed by the prospect of being largely independent of imports of fuel for energy production, Japanese politicians even decided to establish a plutonium industry. Fast breeder reactors, which produce more fuel than they consume, seemed too tempting to pass up.


While most of the world's nuclear nations were abandoning this risky and expensive option (Germany turned its fast breeder reactor in Kalkar near the Dutch border into the most expensive amusement park of all time), Japan inaugurated its Monju breeder reactor and, in 1993, laid the foundation for a reprocessing plant in Rokkasho on the northern tip of the main island, Honshu. At an estimated cost to date of more than €14 billion, the facility is one of the most expensive industrial plants in the world, and yet it has never been in full-fledged operation.

"Our country was literally brainwashed," says Taro Kono, a member of the lower house of the Japanese Diet for the conservative LDP. "Atomic energy is a cult in Japan."

Kono, 48, comes from one of Japan's major political dynasties. He has been a member of the parliament for almost 15 years and is notorious for his independent views. He is one of the few members of his parliamentary group to have dared to question Japan's nuclear policy. As a member of parliament who has one of the best election results in Japan, Kono feels even more emboldened to express his opinion. "This is the only reason I can afford to criticize the nuclear industry in the first place," he says with a smile.

"Now TEPCO is saying that the tsunami was much bigger than expected," says Kono. "But what were they expecting?" This, he says, was the conclusion reached by a commission dominated by the power companies, which included almost no earthquake or tsunami experts. "It determined how big the tsunami should be," Kono says. "That's why the electric utilities are the ones who are mainly responsible. It's as simple as that." But for Kono, finding allies is difficult in a country where any criticism of the nuclear industry can end the careers of scientists, journalists and politicians.

Scientists Keep Quiet

TEPCO's influence even extends into scientific laboratories. Many scientists, especially at the University of Tokyo, are partial to TEPCO. The company contributes millions to the university and supports many associations, think tanks and commissions. This form of public relations has been useful to the company until now.

Not a single scientist or engineer at the University of Tokyo has ever been known to have spoken critically about TEPCO, even after the accident in Fukushima. "If you are a critic of nuclear power, you are not promoted, you don't even become a professor, and you are certainly not appointed to key commissions," says Kono.

At times, doubts are indeed voiced about the system of crony commissions. Five years ago, for example, seismologist Katsuhiko Ishibashi resigned from the committee that had been tasked with revising the safety regulations for Japanese nuclear power plants. Of the 19 committee members, 11 were also members of committees within the Japanese electricity lobby. Ishibashi criticized the decision-making process on the committee for being "unscientific." "If we do not fundamentally improve our technical standards for nuclear power plants, Japan could experience a nuclear catastrophe after an earthquake," he warned at the time.

But it is difficult to get through to the Japanese public with such warnings, given the millions upon millions of euros TEPCO spends on media and public relations each year. Its image cultivation campaign even includes the sponsorship of news programs, including Tokyo station TBS's "News 23," Fuji's "Mezamashi TV" and TV Asahi's "Hodo Station." In TEPCO's world, everyone gets a piece of a very large nuclear pie.

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