Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


Prepare for a backlash against nuclear power
The Times - March 14th 2011

It is no coincidence that the internationally accepted word for a wave caused by an earthquake is the Japanese tsunami, formed from the characters for harbour and wave, nor that even the old, historic temples that you might have visited there as a tourist have been rebuilt many times over the centuries. Japan is used to natural disasters, and especially to earthquakes. But that doesn’t make them any less horrific when they happen—especially when nuclear-power plants are also involved.

            In many such disasters, the initial estimates of casualties prove too high, as it is so hard to keep track of people amid the resulting chaos. As the 2004 earthquake and tsunami off Indonesia and around the Indian Ocean showed, however, the opposite is the case with tsunamis: the numbers keep on rising.

That looks sure to happen in Japan now, where modern buildings benefit from the best earthquake-resistant technology in the world but where ordinary people’s homes are made and designed, like the old temples, to be easily and cheaply rebuilt. Faced with earthquakes that tradition makes sense, but with a tsunami it is different: the wave just swept houses away or crushed them like matchboxes.

There is an awkward sense of relativism in our response to disasters: we are even more horrified by an event like this in Japan than, say, by the estimated 250,000 deaths caused by the earthquake in Haiti in January 2010, or the 70,000 in China’s Sichuan province in 2008. But after all, Japan is a country more like ours than is Haiti—modern, developed, industrialised—one in which we do not expect tens of thousands of people suddenly to die during an ordinary March afternoon. It challenges our sense of security, of the protections that affluence appears to bring us.

What, though, might be the consequences for the 120m Japanese and for the world from what the Japanese prime minister, Naoto Kan, has described as the worst crisis the country has faced since the second world war? In trying to answer that question,  the first thing to do is to forget about economics—even though it will be the first thing many non-Japanese will ask about.

There will, of course, be huge disruption to economic activity in the short term, especially as some of the country’s nuclear power stations are shut down. But such economic effects will be temporary. Just as after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Mississippi delta in 2005, the reconstruction efforts eventually neutralise the effects of the disruption: output rises again, jobs are created, and much of it will be financed by insurance. Looking back in, say, two or three years’ time, the GDP figures will be the least important sign that something important and devastating happened in March 2011.

Much more important will be the psychological, political and cultural effects. Japan has shown itself many times before to be a country that is resilient in the face of crises and, with its great social cohesiveness and its almost spiritual sense of stoicism, another resilient response is a pretty safe bet.

That does not, though, mean that in what Prime Minister Kan called the “new Japan” that will be built after this crisis, nothing will be different. Top of the list of effects with potential resonance around the world is the possible—no, likely—popular and political backlash against nuclear power.

The story of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant is still unfolding, so it is too soon to judge which way the facts will really lean. So far, at least if the government and the power-plant operator are to be believed, the leakage of radiation has been tiny, and reported problems at a second plant, Onagawa, are insignificant. If it stays that way, then a strictly rational response would be that this extraordinary episode has shown how safe nuclear power can be: hit by the worst earthquake in Japan’s recorded history, the country’s nuclear plants did exactly what they are supposed to do, namely they shut down automatically and safely. Even problems with auxiliary power supplies, used to pump in water for cooling, were dealt with—eventually. Well, we shall see.

It is not enough to point out, as the electric power companies have  done, that this earthquake was exceptionally powerful. Safety measures and government regulations are, or ought to be, designed to deal with exceptional cases and to prevent them from leading to catastrophes. Still, if they do prevent a catastrophe then other countries, especially those like Britain that are not prone to earthquakes, ought to feel reassured.

The trouble is that at such times the response is unlikely to be simply rational. And in Japan, although the current government has so far performed well during the crisis, government agencies and big companies have a bad record of dishonesty about pollution, accidents and risks. An accident at a nuclear plant in Monju in 1995 was at first covered up, for example, and there have been others.

So, already scared and shaken by the quake and the tsunami, the Japanese are likely to be in a defensive and distrusting mood about the nuclear dangers. There can be little doubt: plans to expand the share of Japan’s electricity produced by nuclear power from the present 29% to as much as 40% by 2017 will now be set back, and probably shelved. In other countries contemplating an expansion of nuclear production, including Britain and Italy, the balance of the argument is also likely to be tipped further against nuclear. Even a tiny risk of a major calamity tends to scare us more than simpler, higher risks that we believe we can control, such as driving too fast or smoking.

In political terms, though, the black cloud of this disaster will surely have a silver lining. Japan’s politics has lately been highly dysfunctional. Just a week ago the foreign minister was forced to resign for having received, probably unknowingly, a tiny, technically illegal donation from a Korean supporter who had been resident in Japan for 65 years. Moreover the opposition has been plotting to try to force a general election by blocking the annual budget. The chances are that politics will now calm down and become more functional.

A deeper psychological or cultural worry must be that while the Japanese will now bind closer together in order to rebuild and recover, they might also become more detached from the rest of the world. Wartime defeat sent Japan out into the world, in order to join it, both politically and economically. In recent years, pressured in Asia by Chinese growth and North Korean sabre-rattling, and at home by economic difficulties, Japan has been becoming more inward-looking.

One symptom of that has been a decline in the number of young Japanese going abroad to study or to work. The danger now is that the earthquake and tsunami will reinforce that tendency, amid a natural preoccupation with domestic problems and tasks, cutting Japan off even further. That would be a pity for Japan, and a pity for the rest of us, too.            


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