As Tokyo shook early Saturday morning and loud shrieks from mobile-phone earthquake-warning alarms filled bedrooms around the city, one word immediately sprung to mind: Fukushima.
Those who don't reside 135 miles away from the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl won't understand this reaction. But the first thing most of Tokyo's 13 million residents do once things stop wobbling is check if all's well at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant still leaking radiation into the atmosphere and the Pacific Ocean. Worse, a fresh spate of accidents there make some wonder if the Marx Brothers are in charge. I'm no engineer, gents, but next time you might want to avoid disconnecting the wrong pipe, dumping another 10 tons of toxic water into the soil and contaminating yourself to boot.
It's been almost three months since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged to step in to help the hapless Tokyo Electric Power Co. end the crisis. It's been two months since his office went even further, saying it was laying out “emergency measures” to take control of the disaster recovery. It's been seven weeks since Abe told the International Olympic Committee not to worry about that little nuclear situation up north to secure the 2020 Games. And, well, we're still waiting for and worrying that the next quake will cause a fresh meltdown.
Abe did visit Fukushima on Oct. 19, his fifth since taking office in December. But each one is becoming more and more about spin, less about demanding faster action by Tepco executives. Here's the Japan Times headline the most recent visit generated: "Abe Tries to Dispel Rumors About Fukushima Seafood." All the while, Abe's real priority is restarting the nation’s 50 reactors, arguing that his economic recovery is at risk. The Liberal Democratic Party has long been a shill for the nuclear-power industry and far be it from Abe to rock that boat.
The public isn't convinced that nuclear power is as safe, clean and cheap as the LDP says. Even before new radiation leaks were discovered in August, roughly half of Japanese were against restarting reactors that that have been offline for 2 1/2 years. You can bet public opposition has hardened since then, perhaps significantly. Complicating Abe's campaign is the recent about-face by his mentor, Junichiro Koizumi. The former prime minister sent shockwaves through Nagatacho, Japan's Capitol Hill, with an Oct. 1 speech, during which he declared his opposition to nuclear power.
“There is nothing more costly than nuclear power,” Koizumi said, marking a stunning reversal for an LDP stalwart. As prime minister from 2001 to 2006, Koizumi referred to Japan as "a nation built on nuclear power" and ended tax-funded subsidies for solar panel companies to preserve the supremacy of reactors. Abe was less than impressed, saying last week that "It's irresponsible to promise at this point to scrap nuclear energy."
Koizumi siding with the anti-nuclear movement is important for two reasons. One, he's an extraordinarily perceptive politician with a unique ability to read the public mood and sell sweeping change to the masses. Two, he's calling for a kind of Manhattan Project in reverse. The reference here is to the U.S. project that produced the nuclear weapons that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. What Koizumi envisions is an ambitious plan to do the opposite and rid Japan of the reactors the public has come to fear since March 11, 2011, when a giant earthquake destroyed Fukushima. What's more, Koizumi believes, Japanese are likely to rally around such an endeavor.
“If the Liberal Democratic Party were to adopt a policy of no nukes, the public mood would rise in an instant,” Koizumi declared. “The Japanese are masters at turning a pinch into a new chance.” Three weeks later, on Oct. 25, Koizumi doubled down and called politicians who champion the nuclear industry "irresponsible." That pretty much covers his entire party.
As the current LDP leader dukes it out with a former one, the residents of Japan are being feted to an almost daily offering of troubling news from the nuclear zone. Earthquakes are scary enough without having to worry the next one can transport the nation right back to the darkest days of March 2011.
(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)