Thoughts on Nuclear Issues in Japan

I read an article in the Japan Times called “Government, Tepco again hit for nuke crisis” last night. As I enjoyed the electricity fueling the laptop that allowed to read said article, feeling refreshed from the hot shower (hot water provided by Tepco’s natural gas), and able to to cook myself a light snack (once again, Tepco fueled), I started thinking about this whole nuclear crisis issue.

The government panel sent in to investigate the nuclear crisis that occurred at Fukushima No.1 nuclear plant concluded the disaster was “man-made,” which is interesting considering that it wasn’t. There was an earthquake the likes of which had not been experienced within three generations’ lifetimes and then a tsunami that absolutely decimated a portion of Japan. Yet, somehow, the disaster was “man-made.”

According to the panel’s findings, “Because the government and the power utilities, including Tepco, were biased by the safety myth, thinking they would never ever face such a serious accident, they were unable to realize that such a crisis could occur in reality. This appears to be the fundamental problem.” In short, the people at government and Tepco failed to predict the future, thus it was “man-made.” What?!

To be fair, the article does talk about other reasons. “The panel also faulted Tepco for not preparing sufficient tsunami defenses and said it lobbied the government to not impose stricter safety guidelines, and said nuclear regulators were also to blame for not requiring the utility to better gird for natural disasters.” Lobbied the government? That’s a nice way to put it.

Japan’s government, unfortunately, is practically owned by Tepco. Notice how both of these entities are doing down together. The awful fact is Tepco essentially makes the money for the government. Everybody on my side of Japan pays Tepco for just about all utilities, whether directly or indirectly. That’s just how it is. Most of Tepco’s money goes to the government. Therefore, Tepco gets to pretty much decide what the safety regulations are. There’s no “checks and balance” system over here. It’s Tepco’s way or the highway.

And now, people are all up in arms, talking about how bad Tepco is and how bad nuclear power is. I hate to break it to Japanese people but they’re not synonymous. The government has the power to seize the day and take control. Japan could live in a world wherein the government has complete control over this stuff, and it should. Putting so much control in the hands of a corporation when hundreds of thousands of citizens lives are involved, needless to say, is not a good idea. Corporations generally don’t have a great track record of looking out for people. They are great about making money, but awful about taking care of people.

When I came to Japan in July of 2011, so many people asked me if I was scared of nuclear radiation and nuclear power plants. The quick answer is “No and no.” However, the more complicated response is something along the lines of, “No, I’m not scared of invisible radioactive particles because radioactivity is not high in my area. No, I’m not scared of nuclear power plants themselves, I’m scared of the government not doing its job.” People in Japan were quick to point at nuclear power and go, “Abunai! Abunaideshou! Dangerous! Dangerous!” Well, I think they could be safe, if the government is willing to get on top of it.

Now, nuclear plants can be dangerous. After all, if the conditions are just right, they can explode. If they explode, people die and people get sick and die. It’s an awful catastrophe. Yet, well regulated, safety checked, often updated, and often safety drilled nuclear plants are not so dangerous. The problem is that stuff costs money. All too often, governments and corporations cut corners. Safety checks decrease, regulation and maintenance gets put off until the next fiscal year, and then we’ve got ourselves a dangerous nuclear plant.

The problem with Japan is that if the nuclear plant had in fact gone supernova, the size of the possible fallout could have basically destroyed the Eastern side of Japan’s mainland, which includes the Kanto region I live in now.  When it comes to the danger, the fact is Japan is too small to handle a nuclear fallout of that magnitude. It is unimaginable how long it would take to recover from something like that in Japan. The death toll would have been higher than high, and not because people didn’t evacuate, it’s because there’s nowhere to evacuate. It’s an island country. There’s only so much space to flee in Japan, and it’s not much.

People are now all for the shutting down of the nuclear plants for the very reasons I just mentioned, but also what if another earthquake happens and it’s worse? What if the tsunami is bigger? Things could get awfully ugly very quickly. However, people have been quick to give opinions, point fingers, argue over facts and stats, but the real issue is finding a solution. If you’re going to demand change to solve a problem, there should be a solution somewhere in there.

What’s the solution?

In my opinion, Japan would be an awesome pioneer as the first country to run completely on renewable energy.

If the government gets smart, it will realize that it should look at all the other alternatives that are readily available. For example, geothermal energy. Remember how Japan has earthquakes? Did you know Japan also has like hundreds of hot springs? Japan could easily run on geothermal energy and become ridiculously self-sufficient in a way that would make other countries look barbaric in comparison. Did you know Iceland basically runs on geothermal? Did you know Japanese scientists helped make that happen? Yeah.

There is absolutely no reason that Japan should have to depend on nuclear energy. Yet, it does, because a greedy corporation wants money. I think that it’s time to shut it down, not because of the “danger” or because of our incapability to predict the future, but because it’s just unnecessary to the extreme.

Unfortunately, the fact is so long as Tepco’s around it will have the government in a choke-hold and refuse to let go (You know, like the mafia and the police way back when in America). It will not deviate from the nuclear power plants because it’s making all the money, and so Tepco pretty much will just wait out the public until it shuts up and then resume business as usual.

I would imagine The Diet and the panel would simply say, “more efforts are needed” and leave it at that. And that’s how I have to leave it, because I’m not in charge.

A New Year Reflection: 3/11 and 9/11

It’s a test week, so I’ve been grading papers more than going to class.My students make the normal mistakes for kids their age, and I’ve got to admit I made the same kind of mistakes every so often back in the day.  When one of my Japanese English Teachers came over and gave me a stack of winter break assignments, I just assumed they’d be like all the rest. He told me, “Look for mistakes and correct. If they are right, circle. You know, yes?”

I smiled and nodded my head, “Hai. I know.” I took the papers from his hands. When I plopped them on the desk, they made a nice thunk! I got out my red pen and got comfortable on my rolling chair. As we would say back home, “This is gonna take awhile.”

I opened the stack and started reading. I paused when I realized these weren’t the normal variety of papers. They were essays, and the students were given different things to discuss over the year 2011. Of course, the Great East Japan Earthquake was a topic. Some students wrote about it. They said pretty much the same thing over and over again.

“The East Japan earthquake was on March 11th. I remember that day. I was in school when the earthquake happened. I was very fearful. Many people passed away and died. I will not forget that earthquake.”

I felt my heart break each time a student wrote about it. Some of them had family up near Fukushima and worried about them being so close to the radioactivity. More than one student mentioned the radiation levels getting high, and also about the earthquake damage in Itako. I wanted to find each and every one of them and hug them. Instead, I slash out grammar and spelling mistakes with a red pen. Beside an essay, I put a “Good job! :)” and possibly a comment.

Every time I saw the numbers 3/11, I couldn’t help but get flashbacks to 9/11. I remember that day very well. I could point out exactly where I was when the Twin Towers were attacked. I can remember how the hallways in middle school were full of people panicking. Teachers were talking to each other in hurried voices, trying to decide what to do I guess. I remember a friend running up to tell me, “Something really, really bad just happened. I don’t know what, but parents are coming to pick up their kids.” I remember turning to the science room and the TV was on. I saw something smoking and a tall building. At the time I had no idea, but it was the first tower struck by the airplane.

That memory remains like a deep scar. For the next week, kids at my school talked at the lunch table. Some were even talking about going away on vacation for a bit. We lived next to a uranium enrichment plant, and it was on the hit list of possible targets for terrorism. I remember wondering how long it would take to go up. The answer? I probably wouldn’t even had time to scream. I still have nightmares about that plant blowing up one day.

I remember where I was on 3/11, too. I woke up that night for some reason. I couldn’t go back to sleep, so I got on YouTube to watch some movies and relax. I saw the earthquake news an hour after it had happened. I was in denial about it, hoping against hope that the earthquake just did some damage and that was all. I found out at lunch about the tsunami. I cried when I saw the death toll numbers rising every ten minutes. I got on Facebook to message my friends and emailed my host families in Japan. When I left to go on Spring Break, I kept up with the news and watched the nuclear plant problems. When I got the news that everyone I knew was fine, I felt relieved, but the nuclear plant issues put a knot in my stomach. Thankfully, some very brave people saved Japan from yet another disaster.

The radiation remains an ongoing problem, but the recovery efforts will continue as well. Still, many people here won’t btuy foods or products if they have the Fukushima kanji on them. There’s a huge nuclear power distrust among my students. They say, “Abunai desu!” It’s dangerous. I don’t know what to tell them. I do understand how it feels to suddenly realize the danger of the world, that it can change so violently, and the paranoia that it could happen again. I wish I could find the right words to say, but I can’t.

At that moment when I sit at my desk I feel like I should do something. I don’t know what, but something. I feel like a failure, like I haven’t done enough to make thing better.

But then I remember how after 9/11 my teachers did their best to keep things normal. We talked about what happened from time to time, but usually we just tried to move on. I can see my students and teachers are trying to move on, too. I can still see the fear students have when a bigger earthquake happens. One student held my hand tightly when a earthquake hit a few months or so ago. I squeezed her hand and said, “Daijoubu desu.” It’s alright. I want to keep doing that. I want to help make everything alright again.

My students are definitely strong and moving forward. They didn’t just reflect on the earthquake. They also talked about the Tokyo Motor Show, the Japan Women’s Soccer Team winning the World Cup, and Arashi winning its various awards (MatsuJun, I love you!). Because of the Japan Women’s Soccer Team, many of my students felt inspired and so proud. They all talked about how the win brought them such joy. Thanks to them, I’ve got quite a few girls talking about being soccer stars when they grow up. I gave them smiley faces on their papers and told them to keep their dreams.

They’re already talking about spring vacation even though that’s quite a ways away. Valentines Day is also just around the corner. A few of my students have asked me if I’m giving away chocolates to a boy. Maybe someday, but not this time.

I hope this next year brings a whole lot of good things. I’m no hero and I know I can’t take the memory of 3/11 away, but I can be here to support my kids. I can’t get it back to the way it was. That’s impossible. Still, I can try to make them feel secure again. The ground can shake all it wants.

I’m not going anywhere.