Future Fission: Japan Won’t Abandon Nuclear Reactors
Daniel P. Aldrich
As Japan continues to recover from the devastating effects of the March earthquake and tsunami that caused the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, many observers are wondering how authorities could have placed nuclear reactors in such vulnerable areas and have expressed strong concerns about the slow release of information to the public.
Recently, an observer of Japan noted on Twitter that “Amakudari kills” — a reference to a term meaning literally “descent from heaven,” which is used to describe the strong ties between industry, government and politicians in Japan.
A recent Associated Press article argued that a “culture of complacency” permeated the nuclear regulatory environment in Japan and that “willful ignorance” among the bureaucrats responsible for regulating nuclear power allowed Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the private utility that runs the Fukushima Daiichi plant, to get away with cutting corners.
In addition to creating networks along which information can be passed effortlessly between parties, the system also creates a situation in which bureaucrats have strong incentives to overlook infractions. Further blurring the lines for civil servants is the fact that many agencies are simultaneously tasked with promoting an issue — such as nuclear power — and regulating it.
Despite the rise of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which came into office on a platform that was strongly anti-bureaucracy, the nexus of influence among the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy (ANRE), which oversees and promotes nuclear power, and TEPCO — known as “the iron triangle” or “nuclear village” — has been maintained.
Recently, the Japanese press reported that the former head of ANRE left his job overseeing nuclear reactors to move into a post advising TEPCO. He stepped down in late April in response to the furor created by the news reports. Japanese newspapers have alleged additional close links between TEPCO and LDP politicians, claiming that TEPCO has donated more than $200,000 to the LDP over the last three years.
However, claims that amakudari itself is somehow responsible for disaster and the poor response are hard to swallow. In fact, evidence points to the contrary. First, Prime Minister Naoto Kan was clearly out of the information loop, suggesting that an idealized amakudari model was not at work. Second, TEPCO itself initially resisted using salt water to cool the reactors because company executives feared it would cause permanent damage to their expensive machinery. In other words, TEPCO’s reluctance to act faster had nothing to do with its relationship with the government.
Third, the claim that tighter regulation could have prevented the disaster is not entirely fair. Nuclear power plants are designed with defense in depth, and despite a lack of batteries and additional backup systems, the reactors have done fairly well, with the vast majority of dangerous radioactive materials remaining within the reactors. Rather than viewing the nuclear crisis through institutional connections, observers should, I believe, pay more attention to the institutions created by the central government to promote nuclear power. Japanese decision makers have systematically sought to manipulate opinion on nuclear power since the late 1960s. Bureaucrats have built a wide variety of policy instruments to bring public opinion in line with their goals of energy security and widespread use of nuclear power including an invisible tax on electricity funnels hundreds of millions of yen to communities that host nuclear power plants. Public school science textbooks promote nuclear power and the government also helps guarantee that farmers and fishermen from areas near nuclear reactors have a market for their goods despite concerns about nuclear contamination.
But despite new domestic concerns, it is unlikely that the Japanese government will deviate from its long-term reliance on nuclear power. Japan has tied its energy future deeply to nuclear power — especially so after the oil-price shocks of the mid-1970s.
The Fukushima Daiichi disaster will not alter the Japanese government’s commitment to nuclear power. While many outsiders may hope that the ongoing crisis will shake up Japan’s cozy nuclear village, Japan’s energy plans will continue to revolve around atomic energy, no matter the cost.
Excerpted from the Summer 2011 issue of Global Asia
Daniel P. Aldrich is associate professor of political science at Purdue University He is a member of the Mansfield US-Japan Network for the Future and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.