Last weekend, I took a walk around my new neighbourhood in Tokyo, and ended up near Tokyo Dome just as a baseball match had finished. Caught in the motion of a tight crowd, I drifted to where a wheelchair-bound woman sat, singing at the top of her lungs 'Genpatsu tomeyou!'; in English, 'Let's stop nuclear power', to the tune of 'We Shall Overcome'. She sang savagely, making those around her uncomfortable in the way that loud sincerity tends to.
Such protests have been a common sight in Tokyo of late. And the public's large-scale rejection of nuclear power has been heard. Last Saturday, Japan's last functioning nuclear reactor was switched off for good. It's the first time since 1970 that Japan has been nuclear power-free.
I arrived in Japan from Bougainville six weeks ago. In Bougainville, I had been living without white goods, and, for parts of the day, without electricity.
I adapted fairly easily to hand-washing and cleaning, to patiently waiting out the blackouts. At one hungry point of a blackout, I considered baking eggs under the glare of the equatorial sun. Instead, I ate a pineapple. I wasn't comfortable with someone else washing my dirty clothes, so a lot of the time I just dealt with the new and interesting odours my clothes conveyed. No one seemed to mind.
Living without convenience revealed the privilege of my upbringing. I adapted. We always adapt.
Tokyo, then, came as a shock. I arrived at Narita airport after dark, and let the flat escalator do the walking as I was zoomed through the gates, beneath a banner that repeated, 'Japan. Thank you. Japan. Thank you.'
I took the train into central Tokyo, my bum warmed by the heated seats. Each time we stopped at a station, the train's engine shut down briefly, and the bum heater switch off for a few seconds. Over the loudspeaker, I heard, 'Setsuden chu,' the catchphrase meaning, 'We're currently using less electricity,' which is posted all around the city, part of a campaign to emphasise corporate and community roles in reducing energy consumption.
During my first few days here, I was horrified by the dazzling lights and endless vending machines. It was grotesque. Having paid exorbitantly for power in Bougainville, I couldn't stop imaging how much it cost to run all of the electricity. An incalculable amount, and for what? A warm bum?
Needless to say, I adapted very quickly again to refrigeration and hot showers, and even the weird-tasting hot milk tea you can buy for a dollar at one of Tokyo's 100 million vending machines. Everything's so convenient in Japan, and convenience leaves one with more time to do things that don't revolve around survival.
The campaigns to consume less energy are powerful, and are changing attitudes about energy consumption. But there's an absurdity to this austere message coming from within a city whose main attractions are electronic conveniences: robots, heated toilet seats, hot meal vending machines.
From World War II until the 1990s, Japan's power usage doubled every five years.
The reality of a nuclear-free Japan is only that there'll be less to go wrong during the next major earthquake. But another major earthquake will, with or without a nuclear reactor, have devastating consequences.
Further, the move away from nuclear doesn't reduce the environmental and human impacts of fossil fuels, nor does it change the fact that we've become utterly dependant on such damaging energy sources. Despite our desire, our need, for truly green alternatives, nuclear energy remains the cleanest viable means of supporting our vast and growing energy needs, as evidenced by the comfort and convenience of the Tokyo lifestyle.
Although the Fukushima meltdown directly killed a handful of people, the majority were not caused by radiation poisoning. Some died of dehydration while awaiting rescue teams. One committed suicide instead of leaving her village; the great tragedy was the loss of homes and communities many people suffered, and continue to suffer.
But compare this with the 3000 Chinese coal miners who died mining for coal in 2008. Are Chinese workers worth less than Japanese consumers?
The effort against nuclear power feels misplaced. The problem with nuclear power is not nuclear weapons; they are a problem of the persistence of militarism in international relations. If radiation poisoning in the aftermath of a disaster is a concern, responsible governance is the answer. If there is a legitimate fear of sabotage, contact your city water authorities. If the environment or the safety of humans are at the heart of the matter, coal and oil are far more culpable.
The real problem preventing nuclear power from being safe is the inability of humans to manage it without killing each other; without developing weapons with it, or preventing preventable disasters and their aftermath.
And if we can't manage the cleanest (available) energy source that can actually sustain our convenient, comfortable lifestyles, then perhaps we don't deserve it.
Ellena Savage is a Melbourne writer who edits Middlebrow, the arts liftout in The Lifted Brow.
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11 May 2012
Did you enjoy this article is the question asked. I did enjoy this article. It opened my eyes to the fact that we have got to find new answers to old questions. I have found myself coming around to the possibility of nuclear power in the future of Australia. Why not? Surely we have had half a century to get it right and a good deal of the world has been doing just that. We have the resource, we can lead the world instead of lagging behind with our old world black coal/brown coal pollutants.
Jim Green (Friends of the Earth)
11 May 2012
Thanks to Ellena for an interesting article. I just want to pick up on the power/weapons issue. Nuclear weapons proliferation turns on politics ('the persistence of militarism in international relations') and technical capacity. Peaceful nuclear programs often provide the technical capacity and the political cover under which weapons programs are pursued. Of the 10 countries to have built weapons, 4-6 did so with important technical support and or political cover from 'peaceful' programs. Australia's one and only serious push for nuclear power was underpinned by a secret weapons agenda as former PM John Gorton later acknowledged.
We needn't be concerned about the dual-use (civil-military) nature of nuclear technology if a rigorous safeguards system was in place. However as the former Director-General of the IAEA Dr Mohamed El Baradei has noted, the International Atomic Energy Agency's basic rights of inspection are "fairly limited", the safeguards system suffers from "vulnerabilities" and "clearly needs reinforcement", efforts to tighten the system have been "half hearted" and the safeguards system runs on a "shoestring budget ... comparable to a local police department."
More info on these issues at
11 May 2012
Re: "Although the Fukushima meltdown directly killed a handful of people"
Sorry for being crass, but it's a good thing for you that the media isn't liable for perjury.
11 May 2012
Very interesting article - thank you for the observations! One sentence stood out to me: "Although the Fukushima meltdown directly killed a handful of people, the majority were not caused by radiation poisoning." Please, do not add to the confusion -- zero people died due to radiation poisoning -- no one, nada, zilch. Every expert panel who has looked at radiation exposure from Fukushima has concluded there will be no health effects. I also disagree that the meltdown killed anyone directly -- you seem to be saying that the evacuation resulted in some deaths, but the evacuation was due to fear of radiation (which, again, harmed no member of the public). That is not a direct cause of the meltdown -- history shows that hysteria and fear kill people, and much of that fear is created by inaccurate reporting.
This article succeeds in putting the real issue into context: nearly 20,000 souls were lost due to the earthquake and tsunami. No one died or will die from radiation exposure ... but you wouldn't know that from reading the headlines, would you?
20 May 2012
There is indeed some confusion about the number of people killed by the Fukushima nuclear accident (as opposed to the earthquake and tsunami). So far only workers have been killed directly (as far as we know) and they were not killed by radiation. The confusion in Serena's response arises from a misunderstanding about the nature of radiation induced diseases. Except in the case of very high doses, such diseases take many years to manifest. There is ample evidence that low levels of radiation cause cancer. The latest edition of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has an excellent series of article about this.
But it is also true that hysteria is a big problem, which is why I, as a member of Japan's leading anti-nuclear energy NGO, have repeatedly advised people to address the health impacts of Fukushima in a holistic way.
24 May 2012
In a talk in Tokyo a few years ago, Tanaka Yuu claimed that German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel said, "We have to stamp out the myths that nuclear power is cheap and nuclear power plants don’t emit CO2."
Supposedly, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, which has set guidelines for calculating and reporting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, says it is wrong to say that nuclear power doesn’t emit much CO2.
If GHG emissions from uranium mining, milling, enrichment and transportation, the disposal and storage (for hundreds? thousands? of years) of waste, and construction and decommissioning of nuclear power plants are included, they are substantial.
According to Tanaka, cesium accumulates in muscle and there has been a rise in heart disease since the disaster in 2011.
He says reprocessing plants are already causing pollution. Kombu seaweed from around the Rokkasho reprocessing plant contains ten times the amount of plutonium that other kombu contains. And the radiation released every year is enough to kill 52,000 people.
I think Sister Rosalie Bertell said that when trucks transport uranium from ports to plants, and waste from plants to disposal sites, radiation is being released and possibly affecting people on and near the road.