A year after an earthquake in Japan touched off the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl, here’s the question on my mind: Who’s going to jail?
The news media are asking the obvious and safe questions ahead of March 11: How well did the government respond? Whither the devastated northeast? What’s the economic effect? When might the 52 of 54 nuclear reactors mothballed since then reopen?
This barrage of “anniversary” articles misses the point. Anniversaries commemorate events in the past, ones for which there is a modicum of closure. Radiation is still venting into the air around Fukushima. Makeshift equipment, some held in place by tape, is keeping vital reactor systems operating. Is Japan’s 3/11 history? Not unless we change the definition.
What the first anniversary of the disaster requires is a dose of accountability. We need a few good perp walks by current and past Tokyo Electric Power Co. executives, whose arrogance, negligence and corruption sent radiation clouds Tokyo’s way. Next on the docket should be the government officials who enabled what more closely resembles an organized crime syndicate than an energy sector.
For years, this crowd ignored warnings of a 3/11-like catastrophe. When it occurred, they claimed the tsunami was beyond anything anyone ever imagined. We Tokyoites must demand that some high-ranking indictments fly because the prime minister of the moment, Yoshihiko Noda, won’t. Over the weekend, Noda said that no individual can be held responsible for the nuclear fallout and that everyone should “share the pain.”
It was a jawdropping comment, one that explains why, six months into the job, Noda’s days are numbered. Voters aren’t just experiencing buyer’s remorse, but sacker’s remorse, too. Low approval rates nudged Noda’s predecessor, Naoto Kan, from office after 14 months. Never mind that Kan saved my life, and those of my fellow Tokyoites.
In the darkest moments of the Fukushima meltdown, Japan considered evacuating Tokyo’s 13.1 million people. Consider where the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the Stoxx Europe 600 Index might be if the financial capital of one of the three most international currencies were an uninhabitable wasteland. This isn’t the stuff of John le Carre novels or Tom Clancy’s imagination. It’s the reality that Tokyo navigated 12 months ago.
Kan wasn’t having it. In the days after the magnitude-9.0 earthquake, he got wind that Tepco wanted to evacuate all workers from Fukushima. That would’ve ensured apocalyptic radiation leaks from more than 10,000 spent fuel rods, which the Einsteins at Tepco stored in relatively unprotected pools near the reactors. Kan stormed into Tepco’s headquarters on March 15 and demanded that its engineers stay on and handle the crisis.
It was a very un-Japanese thing to do in a culture programmed for propriety. Yet desperate times call for culturally questionable measures, and Kan saved Tokyo. Was his overall leadership state of the art? No. He failed to offer the transparency the citizens of any democracy deserve.
Yet 12 months on, the Fukushima whitewash is in high gear. Noda’s first act as prime minister, remember, was to reverse Kan’s most important policy shift: reining in the nuclear industry and finding energy alternatives in one of the most seismically active nations.
Kan was a goner the second he took on the alliance of politicians, bureaucrats and power companies promoting reactors. His proposal to halt plans for 14 new reactors shook the nuclear-industrial complex to its core. The knives came out for Kan, and Japan’s docile media played along.
Noda made life safe again for the nuclear mob. He’s giving them a get-out-of-jail-free card that ensures Japan will learn little from 3/11. It’s funny, really. The world fixates on Japan’s organized crime groups. Even the Obama administration is freezing assets of Japan’s largest yakuza network, the Yamaguchi-gumi. What about the nuclear mob? Its members might not have full-body tattoos and missing fingers, but they’re far more dangerous to our planet.
Noda says the entire Japanese establishment had been taken in by the “myth of safety” and it’s all a do-over. At the same time, that establishment also propagated the now laughable argument that nuclear power is clean, safe and cheap.
Clean? Ask Japanese school kids who are afraid of the vegetables on their plates. Safe? Not unless we build reactors out of rubber and elevate them on huge shock absorbers. Cheap? Japan will spend hundreds of billions of dollars cleaning up Tepco’s mess.
But no worries. We’re going to share the pain. Why should the nuclear industry and its shareholders pay the bill when Japanese taxpayers can?
People are going to jail at Olympus Corp. for cooking the books. In 2007, Internet entrepreneur Takafumi Horie of Livedoor Co. was locked up for book cooking. In the 1970s, even a former prime minister went to prison in the Lockheed Corp. scandal. Why is no one in handcuffs for cooking northeastern Japan?
Most Japanese don’t want a nuclear future, yet they’re being strong-armed into submission. If that’s not a crime, I’m not sure what is.
(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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