Fukushima Nuclear Incident
When I saw conflicting reports over the exploding nuclear power plant in Japan that had been damaged by an earthquake and a tsunami, I wanted to believe much of it was due to media-hype and difference in threat perception between the general public and the nuclear industry. Nuclear power was considered safe by experts, but the general public who grew up watching Homer Simpson bumbling at the Springfield Nuclear Plant always maintained healthy skepticism. Daily aerial photos of the fuming plant didn’t speak to me as powerfully as the image above, which chillingly reminds me of the images of Chernobyl disaster nearly three decades ago. Both the Soviet Union and nuclear industry never recovered from that incident. Today, the question is how bad the situation in Japan is going to get and how precisely the Japanese society will be transformed by this incident.
There are already some signs of disquiet. Yesterday, the Japanese Emperor Akihito gave a television address — the first time a Japanese emperor has given a speech directly to the people on television during a national crisis. Beyond poignant comparisons of the address to the radio address his father gave in 1945 to declare Japan’s surrender to the allies after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was a harsh fact that the Japanese public broadcaster NHK instructed its employees to cut into the speech if there were crucial developments in the nuclear crisis. In a country where the Emperor is revered universally, this instruction bordered blasphemy, a potent indicator of the deep cultural impact of the crisis.
It is also undeniable that Japanese culture and psyche too will be greatly transformed by this crisis. In a country where cabinets and prime ministers (31 of them since 1947) came and went, government and industry are effectively run by elite bureaucrats and corporations, with whom Japan always had ambivalent relationship. While revered for Japan’s rapid growth since the Second World War, they were also reviled for elitism and insularity they represented. While the Soviet Union had nomenklatura, Japan’s top civil servants retire to high-paying corporate jobs in a system known as amakudari. Now they seems overwhelmed by the crisis.
While the Soviet belief in the messianic might of their empire contributed to the Chernobyl cover-up, the Japanese brief in discretion is equally troubling. Until recently, many Japanese people concealed their maladies from family members to avoid causing alarm, and disrupting calm. Reassurances along the same vein seem to be coming from Japanese authorities, despite the fact that the situation in the reactors seems to be deteriorating.
According to a wikileaks cable, the International Atomic Energy Agency warned Japan more than two years ago that strong earthquakes would pose “serious problems” to her nuclear plants. I am a strong supporter of the nuclear power, but have always been disturbed by the way industry reacts to such warnings. In university, I took a class on nuclear power with someone who is now the head of his country’s civilian nuclear program. He was very dismissive of my concerns over nuclear waste storage and transfers. Everyone else in the class (there were 15 of them) does not seem to be too concerned either, and quite worryingly, some of them actually went into nuclear industry. My professor have always insisted that Chernobyl was an isolated accident that could not have happened outside the Soviet Union. Let’s hope he’s correct.