Japan Watch

Prime Minister Kan is protecting industry profits, not citizen interests -- commentary

I have just listened to Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan's (March 15) speech to the nation of Japan, and couldn't be more disappointed with his timidity, his lack of leadership, and his subservience to the nuclear power industry. He has asked people living between 20 and 30 kilometers from the troubled Fukushima Daiichi plant not to leave their houses or open the windows. People living within 20 kilometers of the plant have already been asked to evacuate. These measures are completely inadequate. It is understandable not to want to panic people, but if people are evacuated now as a precautionary measure they will not have to panic later if the crisis worsens. The fact is that despite all the assurances given by the government since last Friday, the nuclear situation has rapidly deteriorated and the government is losing credibility.

Japan has the most efficient mass transportation system in the world. I lived in Tokyo for ten years, and three times a year during the New Years, Golden Week, and o-bon holidays I would see the capital empty out within a day or so and then fill back up after the holidays. The train system runs on electricity and is still working, albeit at reduced capacity due to the electric grid being weakened by its dependence on the failed nuclear plants.

The nightmare scenario would be if there is a major release of radioactive poisons over the next couple of days while the winds, which typically would be blowing out over the ocean, will be blowing south into the 25-million residents of greater Tokyo. This shift in the winds is a result of the storm system that is dumping snow on the tsunami-ravaged Iwate and Miyagi coasts.

What Kan needs to do is to calculate how many people the transportation system can move and at what rate the less effected regions can absorb them, and then encourage people to evacuate accordingly. He should ask people living in western Japan and Hokkaido to immediately invite relatives and friends from the at-risk areas to stay with them, in particular pregnant women, small children, and the aged. Then if the situation deteriorates further, he should encourage more people to leave. Then if the worst case scenario develops, the task of evacuating the rest of the population of the region will be manageable. However, Kan won't do this because it would require admitting that the risk is greater than the industry wants to let people know.

I have been following Kan's career for 25 years, and I can't express how disappointing it is for him to be putting the interests of the nuclear power industry before the needs of the people. The industry has in interest in denying the existence of risk whenever there is a chance that they could still luck out and avert a catastrophe. Here is the logic: If there is a 50-50 chance of a meltdown, for instance, they will say there is no risk and then cross their fingers. If there is no meltdown, then they can maintain the myth that there was no risk in the first place, and this will allow them to continue as an industry and protect their financial investments. On the other hand, if they admit there is a 50-50 chance and take appropriate measures, such as a mass evacuation, and then it turns out the worst was averted, they will never again be able to claim that nuclear power is safe and reliable, and their industry may well be finished. Either way, if the meltdown does happen, they still are finished as an industry. The problem is that if there is a meltdown and people have not been evacuated then there could be hundreds of thousands of needless deaths from cancer and other diseases. It is clear from the course of events over the past few days that the industry is denying dangers only to be proven wrong. What is worse, too many academics who have based their careers on training people for the industry are participating in the denial and the group-think.

At the end of Kan's speech he fielded a single question. The reporter asked him about the situation at a particular reactor. Kan said he would not talk about particular reactors, and instead told the reporter to ask not the Chief Cabinet Secretary or the relevant government agency, but the Tokyo Electric Power Corporation. The government needs to be on top of the situation. He can't rely on an industry that has an incentive to deny the existence of risk. Why would Kan defer to the industry unless he has subordinated the well being of the people to the financial interests of the industry.

This is the same Kan who became Japan's most popular politician in the 1990s after he got down on his hands and knees as Health and Welfare Minister and begged to forgiveness of the families of hemophiliacs who had died after receiving AIDS tainted blood. Kan admitted that the Ministry in a previous administration had been slow to screen blood products because they did not want to import American blood testing systems. The Ministry wanted to keep out the American products so that Japanese companies would have time to develop their own screening devices.

Following Kan's speech, the state-run NHK television reported that 446,000 people have been evacuated from all areas effected by the earthquake and subsequent disasters. Each holiday season tens of millions of people travel. This transportation system, hamstrung as it is by the weakened electrical grid, must be put to use. Unless a larger-scale evacuation takes place, I am afraid that some future prime minister will have to get down on his or her hands and knees and beg the forgiveness of the entire Japanese nation.

Dr. Titus North is the deputy executive director of Citizen Power (a non-profit electric industry watchdog) and previously spent 21 years covering Japan for Thomson Reuters.