Has Tokyo lost its fear of nuclear energy?

Three years after the Fukushima diaster, has the political will to rid Japan of nuclear energy died out in the capital?

Masuzoe's win in Tokyo's gubernatorial race was seen as a verdict on PM Abe's pro-nuclear policy [Reuters]
Masuzoe's win in Tokyo's gubernatorial race was seen as a verdict on PM Abe's pro-nuclear policy [Reuters]

Tokyo, Japan – It’s been nearly three years since an earthquake and subsequent tsunami did massive damage to an aging nuclear power plant in northeast Japan.

In the intervening time, public sentiment and political promise have swung radically, from previous Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s promise of divorcing Japan from nuclear power to the current prime minster, Shinzo Abe, pushing to restart some of the 50 nuclear reactors that have lain dormant since the accident.

In February, Tokyo elected a man seen by some as the “pro-nuclear” candidate – backed by Abe – as the prefecture’s governor. Yoichi Masuzoe, a former health minister, beat out two anti-nuclear candidates, leaving some to wonder if the will to move away from nuclear energy has left Tokyo.

Yoshihiko Noda, who was briefly prime minister between Kan and Abe, ultimately said that, fiscally speaking, Japan had little choice but to use nuclear power.

Jun Okumura, a political analyst and visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs said that Masuzoe’s win simply meant “an opportunity lost; nothing more, nothing less”.

“But the issue was never for the people of Tokyo to decide,” Okumura told Al Jazeera. “The ultimate fate of nuclear power in Japan will be decided in the prefectures and municipalities when generation licenses come up for extension and new construction plans are put forward to replace units scheduled for decommissioning.”

Furthermore, he added that Masuzoe’s position on nuclear power was “incidental to his candidacy” and that he only came across as pro-nuclear because Masuzoe, whose position on nuclear energy is “less is better”, was up against two hardline anti-nuclear candidates, Morohiro Hosokawa and Kenji Utsunomiya.

“Now that he has won the election, he will concentrate on his remit, which is to govern Tokyo. Among his top priorities are making improvements to the healthcare, nursing care and childcare systems, and upgrading the urban infrastructure in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Solving the nuclear conundrum for Japan is not,” said Okumura.

Forgetting the threat of radiation

Of the roughly 157,000 “nuclear refugees” who have been evacuated and relocated since the start of the accident, there are about 56,000 still displaced, mostly still in Fukushima Prefecture – but the reality of their disrupted lives, a 90-minute train ride north of Tokyo, can seem a million miles away from the capital’s denizens.

Yutaka Arai, is the former executive director of the Great East Japan Earthquake Reconstruction Foundation set up by his employer, telecom giant SoftBank. The company has also set up Shizen Energy Saidan Foundation, an alternative energy think tank.

Speaking on his own behalf and not as a SoftBank representative, Arai told Al Jazeera that the loss of the anti-nuclear candidates revealed the political will in Tokyo.

“Now it will be easier for Abe to move forward with his agenda, not only because he has Masuzoe on his side, but because the anti-nuclear candidates lost,” said Arai.

“People have forgotten about it – they have forgotten that there is any threat,” he said, adding that in the intervening three years, donations and the number of volunteers for SoftBank’s foundations have decreased.

It’s important to note that, thus far, there is little evidence to prove that the radiation that leaked – and continues to leak – from the unstable Daiichi plant operated by the Tokyo Electric Company (TEPCO) has caused any widespread illness in the population.

However, the absence of timely information shared with the public, coupled with the initial levels of caesium-137 released into the water and soil, prompted the evacuation of swathes of agricultural land.

Tokyo has ‘absorbed’ the fear

The fear that gripped the capital as the disaster unfolded seems to have dissipated since.

“Restarting the power plants means going back to nuclear energy, and we still don’t know if it’s really safe, we still have doubts about it,” said Kana Atsumi, a 27-year-old Tokyo office worker.

“After Fukushima, they can take proper safety measures to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” said Atsumi.

Her friend, Aya Ikeo, added: “We don’t feel it’s an issue here. When there is an alternative to nuclear power, we can shut down the plants.”

Indeed, no matter what Abe pushes for, Okumura said that restarting the country’s nuclear plants remains largely out of his hands.

“The units are already being sorted out through a purely technocratic process that politicians dare not meddle in, other than the units at the Fukushima-Daini Power Station [seven miles south of the now-decommissioned Daiichi plant],” said Okumura, adding that public sentiment resulting from the Daiichi disaster, rather than “irredeemable technical issues” were what’s driving the move to decommission further plants.

Indeed, the country’s nuclear regulator has yet to set a date for the completion of safety checks, meaning there is no timetable for restarting the reactors – even if the political will to do so succeeds.

In Tokyo, however, there is an acceptance that the restarting of the plants is a political inevitability and a financial necessity.

“Of course I still feel there is a danger,” said Mihoko Sato, 32, holding her five-year-old son, Koshiro. She said in the days following the first explosions at the Daiichi plant, she considered moving south, to Kyushu.

“But I also understand that we live in this day and in these times, and we must accept it,” said Sato.

“In Tokyo, we have absorbed that fear.”

Follow @dparvaz on Twitter.

Source : Al Jazeera

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