Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Japan is without nuclear power, and could stay that way

10 May 2012

If there were a poll for the worst job in the world, Naomi Hirose's might win hands down. The 61 year-old executive was tapped this week to run the Tokyo Electric Power Co.

The power company's incompetence, neglect and hubris brought the world's worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl to Japan. Its safety failures before the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami are responsible for the radiation leaking into the air and water 135 miles from Tokyo. TEPCO, as it's known, has become a decidedly dirty word among Japan's 126 million people.

"I personally like TEPCO", said Hirose, currently a managing director for the company, when asked why he took the job. "It is unbearable for me to abandon the company as it is". What's more unbearable is the lack of contrition at TEPCO and its headlong support of all things nuclear. Thankfully, Japan's typically docile masses--and some marquee-caliber politicians--are fighting back and demanding a nuclear-free future. On May 5, Japan's last operating reactor shut down for scheduled maintenance, leaving the country without nuclear power for the first time in more than four decades. Restarting it, or any of Japan's other 53 reactors, could be difficult given the mounting public backlash and protests.

Japan will eventually restart some. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has been nothing if not consistent in his support for the nuclear power industry. It's long had carte blanche thanks to lavish campaign contributions, steady support for newspaper and magazine advertising and habit of giving government bureaucrats lucrative gigs when they retire.

Yet the Japanese are fast losing patience. Many seem willing to absorb higher electricity bills and live with a replay of last summer's blackouts if it leads to safer future. Japan is one of the world's most seismically active places, and the feeling is that unless it builds reactors out of rubber and elevates them on huge shock absorbers, it needs to find energy alternatives--and fast.

Local leaders, like Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, are pushing back. The Japanese have long tolerated Tokyo's sway over their lives. But its narrow-minded focus on restarting reactors has caused some Japanese to question Tokyo's authority. Is Tokyo listening? It will tune out this rising public anger at its own peril.