How Japan’s nuclear industry got here
By Martin Dusinberre
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews guest columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
NEWCASTLE, England — How did Japan’s nuclear industry get here? As the world digests the appalling images from Fukushima of reactors crippled by last week’s earthquake and tsunami, the question springs to mind how a country that experienced the horrors of nuclear weapons in 1945 came to embrace nuclear power so expansively in the post-war decades.
One answer concerns the ways in which advocates framed the development of the nuclear power industry in the early post-war years. While acknowledging the “tragic meaning” of the atomic age, Taketani Mitsuo, a prominent Japanese physicist, stated in 1951 that atomic energy was a “wonderful thing”. Not to invest in atomic energy, he argued, would hinder Japan’s chances of becoming a “great nation”. By the end of the 1950s, just as Japan’s high-speed economic growth was self-consciously wrapped in the indigenous Shinto tradition, so the country’s nascent nuclear program was described as being “in the age of the gods”.
As a result, the development of the nuclear industry became rhetorically associated with the benefits of economic growth, rather than with the horrors of war. This was despite the attempts of anti-nuclear campaigners to shape discussions of atomic energy with reference to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The oil shock of 1973, which exposed Japan’s overdependence on Middle Eastern oil, only underlined the need for greater investment in nuclear power as a means of maintaining economic growth and building Japan’s international status.
But the oil shock also led to a new development that represents a second and important explanation for the growth of the nuclear industry in Japan. In 1974, the Japanese government greatly increased the subsidies on offer to local communities willing to host power stations. In part, this carrot was an attempt not to have to use the stick — namely the exercise of eminent domain, or forced purchasing of property. In a country scarred by its experience of the atomic bombs, Tokyo’s policymakers were keen to avoid any perception that they were coercing communities into hosting nuclear plants.
This new subsidy regime, known as the “Three Power Source Development Laws,” targeted individual municipalities that were predicted to offer least resistance to a nuclear proposal. By the late 1970s, thousands of rural towns across Japan were beginning to suffer from the twin problems of a shrinking and ageing population, as young people moved to the cities to seek work. Pro-nuclear campaigners at a local level generally argued that hosting a power station would be one way of encouraging young people to return to their hometowns.
The power stations themselves were not the attraction — nuclear plants require a highly specialised workforce, in the main. But the idea was that government subsidies distributed to host communities would enable the future construction of new schools, free childcare, lower municipal taxes, better facilities for the elderly, and so on. In short, young people would be attracted back to the countryside by a quality of life that beat what was on offer in Japan’s cities.
If young people returned to their hometowns, the argument went, the towns would be saved from the threat of bankruptcy and municipal rationalisation, such as occurred during the Tokyo-led merger campaign of the mid-2000s. In other words, the debate about nuclear power at a local level often focused more on the question of municipal survival than it did on issues of power plant safety.
Even when the question of safety was addressed, reassurances were made by suited experts from the electricity companies or from central government, using technical language. From the perspective of a local fisherman or farmer without a university education, this was not an atmosphere conducive to frank engagement. Moreover, the questions were often presented as a matter of “understanding”: either one understood the technical reassurances about safety, or one didn’t. In some cases, those local people who challenged safety explanations were told to “study” the issue more — a strategy that polarised debate.
This local perspective is crucial to understanding not only the Japanese nuclear industry’s past, but also its future. The ways in which the central government and the regional electricity companies respond to the Fukushima crisis will of course be important, as will the role of public opinion in Japan as a whole. But if the accident changes local opinions sufficiently so that willing host communities become scarce — in other words, if the “not in my back yard” campaigners familiar in the West outnumber “definitely in my back yard” locals eager for a power station — then the Japanese nuclear power industry will be in even greater trouble. As they undertake the enormous, long-term task of rebuilding confidence, therefore, Tokyo policymakers and power company officials face a triple challenge. They must go beyond addressing national and international concerns. Local public opinion and politics will matter just as much.