Media Mix, March 22, 2020

Naoto Kan

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the theatrical feature Fukushima 50. Part of the column discusses the portrayal of Naoto Kan, who was prime minister at the time of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster depicted in the movie. Kan comes off badly, and, in real life, the disaster destroyed his party and has made him, in many people’s eyes, representative of the authorities’ ineptitude. Therefore, it’s useful to look at Kan’s legacy, especially with regards to the nuclear power issue. In 1998, when he was the leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, he submitted a bill to the Diet that was meant to facilitate recovery after a chain reaction of bank failures. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party passed the bill and as a result a crisis was averted when banks on the verge of collapse were nationalized. By the same token, Kan thinks it’s important for the central government to take over the job of decommissioning nuclear power plants. He has said that nuclear plants are assets for power companies when they are in service, but once decommissioning starts they become liabilities, and if the company doesn’t have enough money to decommission the plant, their debts will exceed their assets. Nuclear power should thus be nationalized so that decommissioning can go ahead smoothly and at a reasonable pace. Apparently, Kan is still trying to enact such a law, which is, of course, difficult since the LDP wants to restart as many nuclear plants as possible. In a recent interview with Tokyo Shimbun, Kan said that if Abe had been prime minister during the Fukushima incident, things might have turned out differently since it was the LDP’s policy to support nuclear power, meaning that it would have supported Tepco’s efforts, which we have since learned were borderline disastrous and might have let to untold destruction if they had had their way. Kan believes that there is no way his bill could pass under the current administration the way his banking crisis bill did under a previous LDP government. It’s obvious that, whatever Kan’s feeling about nuclear power before 2011, he thinks that the country should move away from it now, albeit slowly and methodically.

As legacies go, this one is perhaps more tenacious than Kan’s detractors would like to imagine. If public sentiment is the main reason why the LDP has failed to get nuclear reactors back online despite the obvious environmental problems created by their replacements, fossil fuel-burning power plants, Kan may be the most central figure in creating that sentiment. Lost in the current flurry of news coverage of a very different emergency, the coronavirus pandemic, news stories about the Fukushima disaster have been necessarily muted, but TBS’s invaluable Hodo Tokushu‘s deep dive into the nine-year anniversary of the meltdown, broadcast February 26, included points that deserve greater attention. Perhaps the most revealing one was how much Taiwan learned from the disaster and incorporated into their own energy policy while Japan has essentially maintained the policy it had prior to the disaster. As the cleanup of Fukushima proceeds at a snail’s pace and the government puts efforts into reopening other reactors, Taiwan, whose geology is very similar to Japan’s, has been busy decommissioning nuclear reactors that are 40 years old (Japan is thinking of extending the expiration date of its reactors) while beefing up its safety precautions with more simulation drills. One of the main contentions of Japanese citizens groups who are suing to prevent reactors from going back online in their vicinities is that the government has not implemented effective safety improvements, which it promised to do after the Fukushima disaster. Essentially, the government has relied on the courts to overlook its negligence in the matter of creating evacuation plans and the like. In contrast, Taiwan passed a law saying that all nuclear power stations will be closed by 2025, the first place in Asia to make such a pledge, though power companies are trying to convince the public that it is too dangerous to abandon nuclear power so quickly without sufficient capacity in other energy sectors. Consequently, it is the aim of the government to increase renewable energy capacity from 6 to 20 percent by 2025, and, according to TBS, they seem to be on track to accomplish that. What’s more, 90 percent of the equipment and facilities used for renewables in Taiwan are made in Taiwan, so the changeover is a source of economic stimulus. Japan is still arguing over which is more practical at the moment, fossil fuels or nuclear. Taiwan obviously learned more from the Fukushima disaster than Japan did.

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