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English translation of the article 'Se non ora, QUANDO?' published on Italian daily paper 'Il manifesto' on 9th August 2012

If not now, WHEN? from il manifesto - 9th August 2012

What really is the use of having nuclear power in Japan?
The myth of safe power stations has been exploded with the events in Fukushima.
The government insists on the nuclear supply chain for one reason only: military capacity.
9 agosto 2012 - Yukari Saito (translated by Gerry Blaylock)

i legami strettissimi

After the accident in Fukushima on March 11 2011, I have often been asked how Japan, after going through the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, could place 54 reactors all over its territory, exposing itself to risks of radioactive contamination. The only reply I managed to come up with was the skill of the United States, who, since the nineteen fifties, had drummed into us the idea of nuclear energy 'for peace' which was able to bring wellbeing even where resources of energy were scarce – while Washington's real aim was to gag the anti-nuclear movement and impose this image of harmless, useful atomic technology.

After May 5, when the last of the 54 reactors was idled for periodical tests, leaving the country nuclear-free, the recurring question became, 'what was the use of all those power stations if you can get by without?' Now, having returned to Italy after a month's stay in Japan I can add my question: what really is the use of having nuclear power in Japan?

This doubt arises from the fact that in the region surrounding the capital, whose energy is supplied by the ill-famed electrical company TEPCO, there is no more talk of a decree on electrical-energy saving, never mind 'planned blackouts', even if the source of nuclear energy responsible for 30% of energy needs is shutdown. Tokyo is fine in this year's torrid summer, with air-conditioners working everywhere exactly the same as two years ago. If we go to Kansai, the region where the cities of Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe are, we find out that the hotly-contested reactivation of the two reactors in Ooi last month has only resulted in switching off thermal power stations, but not to revoke the decree on energy-saving, nor risks of blackout, which were the reasons the government used to justify their reactivation. To cover the emergency, the president of the electrical company, KEPCO, now demands other reactors be started up. But the figures are clear: the region has enough power already without nuclear power.

The unspeakable aim

In the meantime, the governor of Tokyo has put forward the names of those who are to be members the new nuclear regulatory authority, which was set up to make authorities more independent of the nuclear industry: however, we discover that it will be managed by figures who are well-known for their close relationships with the nuclear lobby. Public meetings organised in various cities for discussions on national energy policy have highlighted the people's clear opposition to nuclear power and the desperate, ill-concealed attempt on the part of the government to exclude this option. Also, the government's stance on exporting nuclear plants is firm. All of this in spite of the parliamentary commission's report on the Fukushima accident, which was presented only a month ago. The 641-page report openly blamed the accident on the irresponsibility of the electrical company and the previous authority, and the subjection of the latter to the former, which hindered them from preventing the avoidable human disaster.

To tell the truth, it is not hard to explain the government's insistence on nuclear power. You only have to speak the name of the unspeakable: its use for military purposes. It is an open secret, anyway. The right-wing ex-Minister of Defence, Ishiba, said it loud and clear a year ago: he declared that it was fine to reduce Japan's dependence on nuclear power, but all its power stations could not be closed down because that would take away their capacity to develop atomic weapons whenever international circumstances should warrant them, seeing as Japan's neighbours already have them.

If we said goodbye to atomic energy, that would effectively mean saying goodbye also to reprocessing spent fuel and extracting plutonium, which is justified by the reutilisation of the fuel to generate electricity (even if various technical problems have hindered the operation so far). Saving some nuclear power stations, against people's wishes, is the only way Japan can maintain its nuclear supply chain without seeing itself placed among the 'bad guys' like Iran and North Korea. Even exporting power plants, with the opportunity to take back the spent fuel, offers an excellent excuse for staying in the atomic business.

For the vast majority of Japanese, however, this is decidedly unacceptable. Various opinion polls and daily rallies demonstrate it. Even the mayor of Hiroshima, candidate of right-wing parties, confirms it. In his speech during the commemoration of the sixty-seventh anniversary of the atom bomb being dropped on Hiroshima, Mr. Kazumi Matsui said, 'March 11 2011 is an unforgettable date for humanity.' (Because of the accident at Fukushima). 'Those people affected by it and forced, still today, to live in very difficult circumstances have much in common with the population of Hiroshima 67 years ago.' He went on, 'Japan is now engaged in a national debate over its energy policy which is learning from the horrible accident and the lesson on the incompatibility of nuclear power and humankind.' Finally, he called on the Japanese government ' to establish without delay an energy policy that guards the safety and security of the people. I ask the government of the only country to experience an atomic bombing to accept as its own the resolve of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Mindful of the unstable situation surrounding us in Northeast Asia, please display bolder leadership in the movement to eliminate nuclear weapons.'

A part of humankind that refuses nuclear power

It seems almost that the Japanese archipelago is inhabited by two different types of human race who speak different languages. Professor Takao Takahara, lecturer in international politics at the Meiji Gakuin University, has for some time been active in anti-nuclear movements and often takes American students to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He says that the visit usually radically changes their mode of thinking, 'Often they are young people that are convinced it is right to reply in kind to attacks made by others' armies. But after visiting these towns and listening to the survivors' tales they change their minds: they begin to doubt that an act of such cruelty should be wished upon even their worst enemy.'

Is there no way of changing the opinions of politicians in favour of nuclear power? The glimmer of hope wanes as soon as I think of Yasuhiro Nakasone, faithful ally of Ronald Reagan, who was prime minister from 1982 to 1987. Upon hearing the news of the devastating bombing of Hiroshima, the young Nakasone thought straight away that arming Japan with nuclear weapons was the first thing to do. He never managed to during his long political career and had to be happy with his role as promoter of atomic energy in Japan, with Washington's blessing.

Yet there is a sort of humankind of a totally opposite nature: the numerous citizens, well-known or anonymous, who before March 11 did not even think about nuclear power stations. Then the accident shook them from their slumber and made them understand that the authorities were not there to protect them. They owe much to some figures, independent professionals, now well-known and listened to, but only two years ago pretty well unheard-of.

Naomi Toyoda could represent all of them: a 55-year-old photojournalist specialised in Middle-East conflicts, he also came to Italy to document some cases of Italian soldiers stricken with disease because of exposition to depleted uranium. Toyoda was among the first photographers to eneter the area surrounding Fukushima Daiichi after the earthquake. 'When we were young, we used to ask our parents why they had not opposed the war. They answered that they couldn't because nobody was doing it. Now, what are we going to say to the kids of today about nuclear power stations? Will they accept something like what our parents told us?' He feels guilty about not being able to stop what happened, both as a well-informed adult citizen and as a journalist. So, for the last eighteen months he has been visiting the stricken zones and going around the country to show his photos and hold conferences. 'I'm really sorry and I don't know what I'd give to be able to make up for this disaster, but the years of life I have left aren't enough to bring the contaminated land, air and water back to how they were.' he says dismayed before a large group of high school pupils.

Unconsolable feelings of guilt

It seems irrational to feel guilty for something one had fought against for decades, but wanting to apologise to the youth, as though the accident was the fruit of their negligence, is a reaction that is common to others engaged in the battle against nuclear power. Many mothers say they feel guilty at not being able to protect their children and they are ashamed of their ignorance about and indifference to the issue before the disaster.

'After March 11, I feel like I've become another animal,' writes Ms. Yuka Nishioka, cartoonist and author of the excellent Sayonara, Atomic Dragon, the story of atomic weapons and nuclear energy told to a small girl by a Japanese scientist and his nephew born in Europe after Chernobyl, which left him with congenital problems. 'Survivors of Nagasaki told us that for them time had stopped on August 9 1945, when the plutonium bomb was dropped on the city. They said they wanted to be the last-ever victims of atomic weapons,' says Nishioka. 'I'm from Nagasaki, too, but it is only after Fukushima that I fully understand the meaning of those words.' Right. What happened at Fukushima has given a new meaning to the anniversaries of Hiroshima and Nagasaki for many Japanese.

Akira Kawasaki is a representative of Peace Boat and expert on international policy for world de-nuclearisation. A year and a half after the accident, he says, is the moment to form a general picture of the damages sustained: from production to the environment, the health of the inhabitants and workers, the destruction of local communities. 'Looking the reality of the devastation in the face means realising what risk we run with atomic power.' Then he asks himself, 'The myth of safe nuclear power stations is now in tatters. But what about the idea that nobody will dare use an atomic weapon? Isn't that also a myth?' Kawasaki holds that awareness in Japan of the risks of nuclear power has never been so high, concrete and widespread as in this moment, but attention must be drawn to the military sphere. 'If the reprocessing plant in Rokkasho-mura starts up, each year the production of plutonium will be equal to 1,000 bombs. Japan's attachment to nuclear power not only creates enormous problems of radioactive waste for our country, but also spurs our neighbours on to have recourse to it, too.'

translated from Italian by Gerry Blaylock