by Craig D. Nelson
The devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan this past March left the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant crippled and the world worrying about the consequences of this nuclear disaster. This month Craig D. Nelson looks at the long relationship the Japanese have had with nuclear power to explore the paradox of how the nation that suffered nuclear destruction in 1945 came to embrace nuclear energy so enthusiastically.
For more on Japan and East Asia, readers may be interested in recent Origins articles on the Global Currency Wars, North Korea, Taiwan, and post-WWII Japan. Readers may also want to see these Origins articles on Drought and Flooding in Australia, The Global Food Crisis, The Debate over Indian Population, and Fishing and Over-Fishing in American Waters.
On March 12, 2011, an explosion rocked the towns of Futaba and Okuma in Fukushima, Japan, but few were there to hear it.
The day before, the earth and then the sea turned against the towns in twin disasters that leveled homes and businesses, strewed debris across lawns and fields, and tore chasms through the asphalt streets. But it was a human-made disaster at the nearby nuclear power plants that made Fukushima residents flee.
Among the few who remained to hear the explosion were those too stubborn to leave their homes and the pet akitas and huskies reluctantly left behind by their fleeing owners. Although the town was mostly abandoned, the nation and the world saw the blast on television. As subsequent hydrogen explosions ripped through the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, many watching uttered two words: Chernobyl and Hiroshima.
Few words in the collective vocabulary elicit more fear. Whereas terms like meltdown are abstract, mention of Chernobyl (1986) and Hiroshima (1945) bring to mind human suffering from real events. Happily, neither Hiroshima nor Chernobyl would be replicated at Fukushima Daiichi—prevented by both the reactor designs and the laws of physics.
An atomic bomb requires a rapid, uncontrolled chain reaction of fission, but the design of Japan’s nuclear reactors precludes such a cataclysmic scenario. The controlled reaction that powered the Fukushima reactors has already stopped, making such concerns moot.
Although the disaster at Fukushima I is the only disaster to share the worst rating on the International Nuclear Events scale, best estimates place the radiation release at 10% of that at Chernobyl. Events at Chernobyl were exacerbated by the lack of a steel containment dome, which all of the reactors at Fukushima have, and a reactor design that allowed the nuclear chain reaction to continue in spite of the loss of coolant.
Yet, we are haunted by the specter of our nuclear past. And given Japan’s complicated past with nuclear issues, it is especially surprising that Japan now has such a highly developed civilian nuclear power program, the third largest in the world after those of the United States and France.
The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, fallout from the testing of Soviet nuclear weapons, and the Lucky Dragon Incident of 1954 left the Japanese in the 1950s with what some observers have called a “nuclear allergy.” Historically, Japanese anti-nuclear-weapons activists have been among the most vigorous in the world.
But the desperate need for energy to power Japan’s rapid economic growth and the complexities of post-World War II international relations together led the Japanese government to pursue nuclear power.
Choosing a nuclear policy was one thing, persuading an initially reluctant public was quite another. The government and electric utilities promoted the nuclear power option relentlessly, starting a public relations campaign in the mid-1950s that strove to cement a positive image of nuclear power in the public eye.
In Futaba, a sign bearing the town’s motto—“nuclear power is the energy of a bright tomorrow”—now stands as an eerie reminder of that campaign for a nuclear-powered future.
But nuclear power has remained a sensitive issue and the public has long expressed ambiguous feelings and increasing concern toward it. The government, by contrast, has remained a firm supporter, even in the face of incidents and disaster that gave rise to questions about the wisdom and safety of nuclear power, such as Chernobyl and Three Mile Island (1979).
Regardless of the outcome of the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi, nuclear issues have played a starring role in Japanese politics, society, and culture for the past seventy years—one that is unlikely to disappear in the near future.
From Hiroshima to Atoms for Peace
Like other researchers, Japanese physicists and chemists closely followed the discovery of nuclear fission by Otto Hahn, Fritz Strassmann, and Lise Meitner in 1938. Japan was one of the few countries at the time with the material resources and scientific talent to pursue this research. In fact, Japan embarked on not one, but two research efforts to create an atomic bomb during World War II.
Of course, Japan lost the race, and instead of victory through atoms, two of her cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, burned in a nuclear holocaust in 1945.
After the end of the war, however, the United States Occupation banned all nuclear research in Japan, including medical and power applications. Although the end of the Occupation in April 1952 opened the possibility for nuclear research to begin again, it was not until after President Dwight Eisenhower’s famous “Atoms for Peace” speech to the United Nations General Assembly that nuclear power research started in earnest in Japan.
On December 8, 1953, twelve years to the day after the United States declared war on Japan, Eisenhower laid out a grim future for the world, one dominated by nuclear weapons of ever increasing destructive capability. After first scaring his audience, he pivoted and offered a solution: the development of civilian nuclear power.
The United States, he proposed, would share nuclear technology, train technicians from other countries, and loan fissionable materials for research and commercial power production.
At its heart, the Atoms for Peace program had two purposes. The Eisenhower administration designed the program to foster good relations between America and its allies, and to show the material benefits of allying with the United States. But Atoms For Peace was also a nuclear weapons disarmament program designed to provide an alternative use for the radioisotopes necessary for nuclear weapons.
His approach assumed that the sharing of nuclear technology would foster cooperation and trust between the United States and the Soviet Union. Eventually, the demand for nuclear materials for peaceful purposes would grow to the point when both sides would dismantle weapons to provide fuel for reactors.
Eisenhower’s proposal painted a positive future for nuclear power, one that was creative and productive, rather than purely destructive.
As far as the Americans were concerned, Japan had a special place in this proposal. Since Japan had been the victim of the first and only atomic bombings, it would only be fair that Japan be among the first countries to benefit from advances in nuclear power.
Before an offer could be floated, however, a disaster struck in the form of the Lucky Dragon Incident.
On March 1, 1954, the United States test detonated a hydrogen bomb in the south Pacific, the fallout from which coated a Japanese fishing boat by the name of the Lucky Dragon Number 5 with a thick, radioactive ash. The 23 sailors aboard were covered in the ash and most were coming down with the early stages of radiation sickness by the time they returned to Japan on March 14.
Panic exploded in Japan with the revelation that not only were the fishermen affected by the fallout, but that their catch had already been sold at market before anyone thought to test it. The abstract threat of invisible atomic poison became all too real once people began to realize that it had infiltrated the food supply.
The tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still fresh. But it was the Lucky Dragon incident that provided the opportunity for a national discussion of the effects of radiation, which were not particularly well understood immediately after the bombings. Even though studies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki revealed valuable information about the effects of radiation on the human body, this knowledge was not well circulated and the U.S. Occupation censored such information in the press.
In order to calm the anger and fear from the Lucky Dragon incident, the Eisenhower administration offered to establish an agreement to share nuclear technology and radioisotopes with Japan. In the midst of a major scandal over radiation exposure, Japanese politicians quickly accepted.
The Choice for Nuclear Power
Why would Japanese officials accept new nuclear technology in the middle of a crisis that was commonly (if hyperbolically) called “a new Hiroshima”?
It was hardly an auspicious time for a nuclear power program. But, the immediacy of the Lucky Dragon crisis aside, nuclear power appeared to Japanese leaders as the only viable long-term option for the production of sufficient electricity for the country.
In the 1950s, Japan, which had been devastated in the war, embarked on an ambitious economic recovery program that witnessed double-digit economic growth and culminated in the “income doubling plan” of Japan’s “Golden Sixties.”
The issue of energy scarcity was front and center in the minds of Japanese policy makers during this rebuilding. To meet surging demand for electricity, they had little choice but to turn to new sources or power, which immediately after the war were based primarily on hydroelectricity and coal burning plants.
Hydroelectric plants were attractive because once the dam and turbines are built, the only costs associated with them are largely operational and maintenance. Yet, annual droughts lowered the water levels of many rivers, making electric output variable and regularly causing blackouts during the summer when the water was at its nadir and demand at its zenith. Developing this resource, moreover, could not continue unabated. By the mid-1950s, most of the easily dammed sites had already been developed.
Likewise, Japanese sources of coal were shallow and poor, and had been overexploited during the war. In the 1950s—with traditional sources of imported coal from China blocked because of the civil war and communist victory—high quality coal had to be imported all the way from the east coast of the United States.
In addition to its economic benefits, nuclear technology also provided a symbolic way to rebuild Japanese society after the war. American bombers had physically destroyed Japanese infrastructure, including a large number of coal-fired power plants. World War II had also unraveled Japanese conceptions of their place in the world.
Since the beginning of modernization in 1868, Japan sought first to catch up to the West and then prove that it deserved a place among the world’s great powers. Through the Second World War, these efforts hinged on the building of an empire, both for resources and for international prestige.
Japan’s loss undid fifty years of development and undermined Japanese identity and its role in international affairs.
After the war, a number of prominent figures proposed the development of science and technology as a method of playing a positive role in the world community.
As early as 1950, Nakasone Yasuhiro, a member of the lower house of the Diet at the time and later Prime Minister, saw nuclear power as an area where Japan could contribute to the world and maybe even make up for Japanese war crimes.
More famously, Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru proposed what is known as the Yoshida Doctrine. This policy argued that Japan should focus on economic development, fueled by technological development, and eschew playing an active role in international affairs.
Nuclear power fit this policy quite well. Many in Japan and throughout the world firmly believed that this technology would bring on a new industrial revolution. Nuclear power would generate electricity that was so cheap that it wouldn’t even be worth metering.
What better way to rebuild post-war Japan than using the most modern technology that would shape a new era of prosperity? In the 1950s, people had seen the future, and it ran on nuclear power.
Selling the Nuclear Option
After deciding on nuclear power, the Japanese government, electric utilities, and nuclear industry engaged in extensive efforts to persuade the public to support it.
This was no easy task. A survey by the U.S. Department of State in 1956 found that Japanese were much more pessimistic about the potential civilian applications of nuclear power than Europeans and Americans. In Japan, 39% said that nuclear technology would provide more harm than good in the long run, while 22% said it would be more beneficial than harmful. In Europe and the US, these figures were nearly the reverse.
In order to overcome this reluctance, the government and industry launched a relatively successful public relations campaign.
They sponsored traveling exhibits, lectures, films, and slides that extolled the safety, modernity, and promise of nuclear power. Predictions of nuclear-powered cars and consumer electronics appeared regularly in the newspapers, which ran a spate of pronuclear articles.
Popular fiction mirrored public fascination with—and growing acceptance of—all things nuclear. One need go no further than Osamu Tezuka’s comic, Tetsuwan Atomu (literally: Iron-armed Atom), known as Astro Boy in the English speaking world. The comic books began their run in 1952 and they depicted a nuclear-powered wonderland –a far cry from the Japan of that time.
Although few of the stories have anything to do with energy sources, the connections to nuclear issues are ubiquitous, starting with the main character’s name: Atom. Atom’s mentor creates a nuclear family (a pun that works in Japanese as well). His sister is named Uran, which means uranium in Japanese, and his brother is Cobalt, another important element in nuclear physics. Nuclear power would bring a utopian future.
Nuclear weapons are conspicuously absent throughout the run of Astro Boy. In this future, nuclear weapons would be replaced by peaceful nuclear power, one of the key aspirations of the Atoms for Peace program.
Opposing Nuclear Arms
Much like in Tezuka’s work, the Japanese people’s growing support for nuclear power did not extend to nuclear weapons. While there was no shortage of people who opposed nuclear power in the 1950s and early 1960s, nuclear critics tended to focus on the issue of nuclear weapons rather than electric power.
One of the main anti-nuclear groups, Gensuikyou (founded in 1955), for instance, opposed both nuclear weapons and power, but their early focus was clearly on weapons.
To protest the testing of nuclear weapons, the Toho Company, Ltd. produced the classic monster movie, Godzilla (1954). Director and co-author Ishirou Honda made this film in reaction to the Lucky Dragon Incident and it hit theaters six months after the Lucky Dragon returned home.
Godzilla’s origins depend on which of the 28 films you watch. In the first film, Godzilla was a creature from an earlier time that had been reawakened and mutated by American hydrogen bomb tests in the South Pacific.
Bill Tsutsui, renowned scholar of all things Godzilla, notes that Godzilla’s scaly skin is reminiscent of the scarring and scabbing of survivors of the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, thus heightening the connection to the dangers of radiation from the bombs.
Japanese opposition to nuclear weapons is, of course, understandable given that they remain the only people ever to be the victims of an atomic bombing. Anti-nuclear rhetoric is common at the peace demonstrations that still take place annually on the anniversaries of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Notably, opposition to nuclear weapons in Japan was not the position of political outsiders, but was a policy held by the Japanese government.
The constitutional place of the military in Japan made the idea of Japan developing its own nuclear weapons untenable. Article 9 of the post-war Constitution of Japan expressly “renounce[s] war as the sovereign right of the nation” and forbids the maintenance of “land, sea, and air forces as well as other war potential.” Although interpretations of this article of the constitution have changed with time, these clauses were read in a very strict sense in the 1950s.
Even Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, who argued in 1957 that the development of nuclear weapons was not prohibited by Article 9, believed that it would be best not to develop them for humanitarian reasons.
Prime Minister Eisaku Satou—a staunch supporter of peaceful nuclear power—later developed Japan’s famous Three Non-Nuclear Principles in 1964. These principles, which were formally adopted by the Diet in 1967, said that Japan would not possess, manufacture, or allow nuclear weapons on Japanese soil.
Recent revelations have made it clear, however, that the Japanese government did regularly and knowingly allow American naval vessels armed with nuclear weapons to call at their ports. Even though the violation of the policy had happened forty years earlier, public outrage ensued.
The Local Politics of Anti-Nuclear Protest
The nuclear power protest movement started to come into its own in the 1970s, after the construction of the first wave of nuclear reactors was completed. This period coincides with the emergence of environmental issues as a component of Japanese politics.
The national movement grew out of local, not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) style protests around the sites of the early nuclear plants built in the mid-1960s to the early-1970s. Protests reflected a range of concerns, from nuclear safety to fears of disruptions in the local economy.
After initially choosing a British-designed, graphite-moderated, gas-cooled reactor for their first commercial plant, the Japanese instead decided to go with boiling water and pressurized water reactors designed by General Electric and Westinghouse. These designs had proven safer and more reliable than those designed in other countries.
The GE models required large amounts of water, however, to serve as both moderator and coolant, which meant that Japanese reactors would need to be placed on the seaside, since there were few rivers suitable to the task in Japan.
Proximity to the ocean, however, raised concerns about the plants’ effects on the local fishing industry. Nuclear power plants expose water to the heat produced by nuclear fission, turning it to steam, which then pushes turbines that generate electricity. After the steam condenses back to a liquid state, it is placed in cooling towers that hold the water until it is no longer super-heated.
Many nuclear plants regularly dump this water into nearby bodies of water while it is still several degrees warmer than the water into which it is dispersed. The heated water, though free of radioactive contamination, can kill large numbers of fish, which cannot adapt to the rapid temperature change.
Several towns near nuclear plants experienced large-scale fish population decline, decimating the local economy based on fishing and in turn engendering protest from angry fishermen.
These objections were compounded by the fact that nuclear power plants were typically built in poorer areas and offered few other opportunities for development. In order to attract the plants, towns first tried to outdo one another with perks and subsidies, only later to witness disruptions in their ways of life after the plants were built.
These towns were inundated first with construction workers and then highly specialized, well-paid workers to run the plants, not all of whom were suited to a small, fishing town lifestyle. Such concerns were mostly local in nature, however.
The national anti-nuclear power protest movements began as an attempt to link local groups together and share techniques for postponing or preventing plants from being built.
The Genshiryoku Siryou Jouhoushitsu (known in English as the Citizen’s Center for Nuclear Information, or CNIC), founded in 1973, was one of the main groups in the creation of a broader movement.
The CNIC’s focus remained on supporting local movements, but its members also engaged in a broader effort to alert the Japanese people about the dangers of nuclear power. It published a newsletter, organized and led marches, gave lectures, produced pamphlets, circulated petitions, and trained regular people to share information with the public.
The movement was broadly successful in preventing new nuclear plants from being built by encouraging locals to oppose the issuance of permits in their areas. But it was not as successful on a national scale and failed to affect policy directly. Japanese media organizations regularly described the protest movement as weak through the 1980s.
Addicted to Atoms
Despite protests from the anti-nuclear movement, the dangers of nuclear power have historically done very little to influence Japanese policymakers.
Accidents at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in 1979—in which a partial meltdown of one of the station’s reactors led to the release of 43,000 curies of radiation—and the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1986—a meltdown that spread radioactive material throughout Europe and the World Health Organization predicts will shorten the lives of 4,000 people—also failed to slow the government’s and utilities’ plans to develop nuclear power.
Both the Kansai Electric Power Company and Tokyo Electric Power Company began construction on new nuclear reactors in 1980, the year after the incident at Three Mile Island. The construction coincidentally included Fukushima Daiichi Number 4, which was involved in the recent nuclear disaster.
Perhaps this lack of delay is understandable given the ultimately minor damage caused by the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island. But the Shikoku Electric Power Company started construction on a new plant only three months after the horrifying complete meltdown at Chernobyl.
All told, Japanese utilities began construction on five nuclear power plants within 14 months of the beginning of the crisis at Chernobyl, while many other countries suspended all new construction for decades.
In part, the Japanese government did not suspend new construction because these reactors had been planned years before and had already gone through the permitting process. More tellingly, the Japanese Atomic Energy Commission’s official response to Chernobyl was a short report explaining that Japanese nuclear power plants’ designs were substantively different enough that a similar accident was not possible in Japan.
This point is true enough. But not delaying construction of new reactors to review standards was a singularly remarkable response to an unprecedented disaster. The response was also in line with the Japanese government’s unwavering support for nuclear power.
Following the events of Chernobyl, the anti-nuclear power movement gained a fleeting national presence. Groups like the Citizen’s Nuclear Information Center organized marches that mobilized tens of thousands of people in Tokyo on the first anniversary of the meltdown at Chernobyl. Fear of radioactive contamination of food imported from Europe mobilized many people. The CNIC noted that many of the protestors were women worried about their children’s future in light of the dangers inherent in nuclear power.
While this boost in interest did not last all that long—with marches on subsequent anniversaries receiving smaller and smaller attendance—the months after Chernobyl did mark a notable shift in public opinion. For the first time in decades, more Japanese disapproved of nuclear power than approved.
Public approval for nuclear power remained volatile throughout the 1990s as a number of scandals tarnished the program’s image, including the government cover-up of the extent of the damage caused by a sodium fire at the experimental Monju power station in 1995 and the radiation exposure caused by the Tokaimura criticality incident in 1999.
It is worth noting that new nuclear power reactor construction did not stop even in periods of popular opposition. Since construction on the first commercial reactor began in 1960, there has not been a single year when a nuclear reactor was not under construction somewhere in Japan.
The Way Forward
As of the writing of this article, there remains serious damage to units 1-4 of the Fukushima I power plant. During the days after the earthquake and tsunami, hydrogen explosions severely compromised the containment buildings of at least two of the reactors, resulting in periodic releases of radioactive steam and irradiated water.
Although electricity has been restored to units 1-4, engineers are still having difficulty keeping the fuel submerged to prevent the fuel rods from melting. High radiation levels are making any amelioration work and monitoring of the situation very difficult.
Tokyo Electric Power Company has not released official figures for the amount of radiation released as a result of the disaster, but estimates place it at only a fraction of the amount released during the incident at Chernobyl. Only time will tell the full impact of Japan’s nuclear tragedy.
All of this leaves two related questions: why have the Japanese people continued to support nuclear power and what will happen to the nuclear power program in light of recent events?
Even disregarding the recent catastrophe, many of the reasons that the Japanese people accepted nuclear power to begin with may no longer hold true. Nuclear power never realized its perceived potential to change the world with nearly free power, and few around the world look to it any more as a pure expression of the future any more.
Japan managed successfully to rebuild after the war, though it has remained mired in a long recession since the 1990s. Japanese identity and Japan’s place in the world are still influenced by science to a large degree and many take pride that Japan leads the world in nuclear technology. But there are other technologies that Japan leads in—like robotics—so the loss of leadership in nuclear power would not be a devastating psychological blow.
The government, the utilities, and the nuclear industry have spent the last half century promoting nuclear power as safe, futuristic, and, more recently in the past 25 years, environmentally friendly. Proponents note that it is the one source of energy that does not produce carbon dioxide. The hype turns nuclear power into a miracle of science that makes modern life possible.
With the disaster at Fukushima, Japanese people will almost certainly reexamine this marketing narrative, especially the issues of safety and environmental impact.
It is hard to talk about safety when there is a 30-kilometer evacuation zone. Radioisotopes in the drinking water do not make people think of the technology as environmentally friendly.
Doubtlessly, there will be a rigorous debate about which way Japan’s energy policy should go, but the primary question remains: what is the alternative?
Nuclear power provides about 30% of all electric power in Japan today, and it could be years before this portion could be replaced with another form of power.
Even then, what type should it be? Coal and oil provide much of the energy in the world, but they are expensive to import to Japan and are arguably no safer or environmentally friendlier than nuclear power.
Consider this: the partial meltdown of one of the reactors at Three Mile Island released 43,000 curies of radiation into the surrounding area. Studies have not proven a link between this radiation exposure and a single death.
Meanwhile, in the same year, coal power plants operating in the United States alone released 6.6 million curies of radiation as part of their standard operation. Further, a Clean Air Task Force study found that air pollution from coal powered plants kills around 13,000 people every year in the United States, while the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 22,000 American lives are shortened every year by the effects of coal pollution.
Other forms of power generation are cleaner, but each has generated its own controversies: photovoltaic cells remain expensive and cannot be used at night; many people consider windmills to be a nuisance, they are known to kill birds, and have a high upfront cost; and hydroelectric dams damage river ecosystems and the most accessible rivers in Japan have already been dammed. With time and innovation, many of these problems might be overcome, but not immediately.
Even if the Japanese government decided to shut off all nuclear power plants tomorrow—which it will not do—there is still the issue of disposing of the waste, an issue that has yet to be dealt with in Japan (just like in the United States). The long-term storage facility at Rokkasho should be ready to open in the next several years but delays have plagued the plant since its conception, and rigorous protests over its siting are ongoing.
The lack of place to store spent fuel rods compounded the problem at Fukushima. In Japan, as in the United States, used fuel rods are stored at the plants in pools that require a steady supply of water to replace that lost to evaporation. The spent fuel pools at Fukushima lost coolant and began to melt, thus releasing even more radioisotopes into the atmosphere.
If there had been a long term storage space available, the loss of coolant to the spent fuel pools would have been a minor problem, rather than a catastrophe that threatened the containment of over 11,000 fuel rods, more fuel than the reactors themselves contained.
The decision to stop building new reactors could create the illusion of safety; the idea that the nuclear problem had been dealt with. Yet, the decision to suspend construction of new plants is meaningless without a full review of the safety of existing plants.
Part of the problem at Fukushima resulted from a lack of planning for a tsunami following an earthquake, with seawalls that were too low and backup generators placed in low-lying areas. These types of problems are likely present in many Japanese nuclear plants, particularly the older ones (like the Fukushima reactors).
The future of the Japanese nuclear power program will hinge on the reaction of the Japanese people. If the reality of the disaster outweighs the benefits of the plants for a large portion of the public, the pace of new construction could stop or further slow. If, however, the benefits are considered to outweigh the risks, Japan may yet continue to be a leader in nuclear power development.
In all likelihood, the Japanese government and utilities will continue selling nuclear power indefinitely. The only question is whether the Japanese people are still going to buy it.
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