A Revolt, the Quiet Japanese Way

New revelations seeped out about the control Japan’s nuclear industry had over its regulators. In early 2006, five years before the apparently preventable meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, the Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC), an “independent” agency, began studying the enlargement of disaster-mitigation zones around nuclear power plants—from Japan’s standard 8-10 km to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s standard of a 5-km “top priority zone” and a 30-km “priority zone.”

But the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), which is under the Ministry of Economy, Trade & Industry (METI), demanded the study be shelved, claiming in emails that were just released that the expansion ”could cause social unrest and increase popular anxiety.”

It worked. But if the expansion of the zones had been implemented, it could have prevented the chaos of the evacuations from the areas around the Fukushima plant—and the deaths that occurred during it.

Another revelation seeped out Saturday. In 2005, the IAEA proposed that emergency food regulations should be prepared for a zone with a radius of 300 km around nuclear power plants—a relatively large area on the narrow Japanese islands. But members of the NISA, the NSC, and the METI requested the removal of any reference to the “300 km.” They were worried about “negative publicity and other factors.”

It worked again. However, the validity of the 300-km food regulation zone has been confirmed: “Radioactive cesium exceeded the safety standard in tea leaves from Shizuoka Prefecture, more than 300 km from the Fukushima plant,” said Hideaki Tsuzuku, a director at the NSC, which is currently re-reviewing the guidelines.

Continuous revelations of how much Japan Inc. had conspired to accomplish its goals at the expense of the people have an impact: the people, known for their patience, have become impatient with the nuclear industry and its regulators—stirred up further by the daily drumbeat of the insidious spread of nuclear contamination:

– High levels of radioactive cesium were detected in condos built last July in Fukushima Prefecture. Turns out, the crushed stones in the concrete were radioactive. And, according to the METI, radioactive stones from the same quarry were used in over 80 other buildings, a street in front of a school, and an irrigation canal.

ARCO, an independent French lab, tested children living 220 km from Fukushima Daiichi and found that 77% of them were contaminated with cesium 134 and cesium 137, probably from food.

– House dust collected from vacuum cleaners in the prefectures of Miyagi and Fukushima was contaminated with high levels of radioactive cesium. Of the sample, 22% exceeded 8000 Bq/kg—thus, radioactive waste that, under Japanese regulations, cannot be put in the garbage.

– Water contaminated with radioactive cesium is still leaking into the sea at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, researchers said, further contributing to the contamination of fish, though TEPCO, the bailed-out utility that owns the plant, true to itself, believed that that wasn’t the case.

And so people are opposing the almighty nuclear industry at a local level. Every time a nuclear power plant shuts down for scheduled maintenance, people in the area come out against restarting it. Thus, of Japan’s 54 reactors, only two are still generating electricity. And both are scheduled to be off line by April. With harsh consequences for industry and manufacturers.

Under pressure from Japan Inc., Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda suggested that some of the reactors should be restarted. And the arm-twisting with the resisting public got a little tougher on Friday, when METI Minister Yukio Edano predicted that Japan would face a power shortage this summer of 9.3%. Last summer, power shortages were largely limited to the Tokyo area and northwestern Japan. This summer, they would hit Kansai, the huge and highly industrialized Osaka area, where shortfalls could peak at 20%.

Industry and households would have to cut back drastically—a Third-World problem that will send more manufacturers overseas. So Edano, in his efforts to overcome local resistance, promised that stress tests would be conducted at all reactors before they would be restarted. But it remains doubtful that the whitewash will re-inspire blind confidence in the nuclear industry.

And there’s another aspect where confidence hit the skids: pension funds. They face a tricky situation. On one side is a horrible investment environment.

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