Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is ostensibly about Japanese commercial TV coverage of the disaster, though it mainly addresses the lack of debate surrounding Japan’s nuclear energy policy. As I say near the end, now is not the time for such a debate, though I notice that the latest issue AERA, published yesterday, does contain a long article about the current state of Japan’s nuclear power industry that goes beyond simply advocating for greater safety. An editorial piece in The Economist last week for the most part supported Japan’s nuclear power policy because Japan doesn’t have much in the way of natural resources and, as it stands, nuclear is the only “clean” energy the country can afford. Though I’m not an expert on the issue, the nature of the crisis still ongoing in Fukushima had to do with Tokyo Electric Power Company’s placing profits above the public good. That may sound tritely anti-capitalist, but private companies who operate public utilities (especially as a monopoly, as TEPCO does) cannot realistically be expected to act any differently. The Sunday Mainichi article I mentioned in the column is more or less a cynical bit of reporting, but I believe there is some truth in the idea that TEPCO’s “threat” of rolling blackouts was formulated as a form of negative PR. The public has to be shown how inconvenient their lives are without those nuclear reactors. They did the same thing in 2003 when a safety scandal forced them to shut down some reactors during the peak air conditioning season in summer, and they said that if people didn’t cut back they would be forced to cut power themselves. What’s ironic here is that “the public” = “customers.” Normally, if a profit-making company wants to control demand, they simply adjust the price. But in the long run TEPCO don’t want people to use less, because they have to make money. The company gives a lot of lip service to “conserving energy,” but only at those times, like these, when it suits their purposes. For sure, the people of Tohoku need energy and they need it as soon as possible. But as soon as things are back to normal, TEPCO will again be promoting greater electricity usage through “all-electric” houses and such. And profit motives will continue to discourage them from pursuing more sustainable means of producing energy. The smart grid, which controls output and use of electric power more efficiently, is one of the most encouraging technologies to come out of the energy and IT fields in recent years, but implementing it would necessarily dilute the power companies’ individual monopolies over distribution of electricity. Obviously, you can’t expect them to do the implementing themselves.
Addendum (3/20, 17:20): The web, and presumably other forums, is filled with derision about the AERA issue I mentioned above. Many Japanese feel it is sensationalist and, as one Tweeter said in English, “fear-mongering,” and while that cover photo of a man in a gas mask is certainly over-the-top, especially when combined with a single headline that states “Radiation is Coming,” the article contained therein is relatively sober. But as I also stated above, it brings up a corrective to much of the mainstream media’s accepting coverage of Japan’s nuclear industry. From what I can gather, the Fukushima crisis will likely be contained, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the people living around the plant will be able to go back to their lives the way they were. A real debate about Japan’s nuclear power policy must be carried out, and the media can no longer “accept” that policy as is simply because it is the national policy; though, in truth, their acceptance probably has more to do with the fact that the power companies have always been huge advertisers. If this sort of “sensationalism” kicks the debate into gear, then bring it on.