‘Safety Myth’ Left Japan Ripe for Nuclear Crisis
“It’s terrible, just terrible,” the White Rabbit says in the first exhibit. “We’re running out of energy,
A Dodo robot figure, swiveling to address Alice and the visitors to the building, declares that there is an “ace” form of energy called nuclear power. It is clean, safe and renewable if you reprocess uranium and plutonium, the Dodo says.
“Wow, you can even do that!”
Over several decades,
The result was the widespread adoption of the belief — called the “safety myth” — that
The belief helps explains why in the only nation to have been attacked with atomic bombs, the Japanese acceptance of nuclear power was so strong that the accidents at Three Mile Island and
As the Japanese continue to search for answers to the disaster at the
“In Japan, we have something called the ‘safety myth,’ ” Banri Kaieda, who runs the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which oversees the nuclear industry, said at a news conference at an International Atomic Energy Agency meeting in Vienna on Monday. “It’s a fact that there was an unreasonable overconfidence in the technology of
As a result, he said, the nuclear industry’s “thinking about safety had a poor foundation.”
Japan’s government has concentrated its propaganda and educational efforts on creating such national beliefs in the past, most notably during World War II. The push for nuclear power underpinned postwar
A song, “It Was Always a Lie,” has become an anthem at the protests and a vehicle for Japanese anger on the Internet. Its author, a famous singer named Kazuyoshi Saito, wrote it by changing the lyrics of a love ballad, “I Always Liked You,” that he composed last year for a commercial for Shiseido, the cosmetics giant. Mr. Saito’s performance of the song, surreptitiously uploaded on YouTube and other sites, has gone viral.
“If you walk across this country, you’ll find 54 nuclear reactors/School textbooks and commercials told us they were safe,” the song goes.
“It was always a lie, it’s been exposed after all/It was really a lie that nuclear power is safe.”
In the days after a giant tsunami knocked out Fukushima Daiichi’s cooling system, the prime minister’s office and the Tokyo Electric Power Company, or Tepco, the plant’s operator, wrestled over whether to inject cooling seawater into the reactor buildings to prevent catastrophic meltdowns, and then over how to do it.
With radiation levels too high for workers to approach the reactors, the Japanese authorities floundered. They sent police trucks mounted with water cannons — equipment designed to disperse rioters — to spray water into the reactor buildings. Military helicopters flew over the buildings, dropping water that was scattered off course by strong winds, in a “performance, a kind of circus” that was aimed more at reassuring an increasingly alarmed Japanese population and American government, said Kenichi Matsumoto, an aide to Prime Minister Naoto
What became clear was that
Japan, after all, is the world’s leader in robotics. It has the world’s largest force of mechanized workers. Its humanoid robots can walk and run on two feet, sing and dance, and even play the violin. But where were the emergency robots at
The answer is that the operators and nuclear regulators, believing that accidents would never occur, steadfastly opposed the introduction of what they regarded as unnecessary technology.
“The plant operators said that robots, which would premise an accident, were not needed,” said Hiroyuki Yoshikawa, 77, an engineer and a former president of the
Even before the accident at
But the robots never made it into production, forcing
The rejection of robots, Mr. Yoshikawa said, was part of the industry’s overall reluctance to improve maintenance and invest in new technologies.
“That’s why the safety myth wasn’t just an empty slogan,” said Mr. Yoshikawa, now the director general of the Center for Research and Development Strategy at the Japan Science and Technology Agency. “It was a kind of mind-set that rejected progress through the introduction of new technology.”
Entering a New Age
The deliberate effort to rally Japanese behind nuclear power can be traced to the beginning of the atomic age, scholars and experts say.
In August 1945, Yasuhiro Nakasone, a young naval officer who would become one of postwar
“I saw the nuclear mushroom cloud over
For many Japanese like Mr. Nakasone, nuclear power became a holy grail — a way for
It was precisely because of nuclear power’s possible link to nuclear arms and its close ties to the
The nuclear establishment — led by Tepco among the utilities and the Ministry of Economy — spent hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising and educational programs emphasizing the safety of nuclear plants. The ministry’s division responsible for nuclear power has budgeted $12 million this year for those programs, said Takanobu Sugimoto, a division spokesman. Mr. Sugimoto said he “regretted” that the ministry might have “stressed only” the plants’ safety.
The government and the utilities encouraged the creation of many organizations that propagated the message of safety. One of the oldest, the Japan Atomic Energy Relations Organization, receives 40 percent of its financing from two ministries that oversee nuclear power and 60 percent from
Mitsuhiro Yokote, 67, the executive managing director of the organization and a former nuclear engineer at the Kansai Electric Power Company, acknowledged that the experts conveyed the message that nuclear plants were absolutely safe. Mr. Yokote said he “regretted” that his organization had contributed to the safety myth.
In a country where people tend to reflexively trust the government, assurances about the safety of
“What could we do but believe what the government told us?” said Masaru Takahashi, 67, a member of a fishing union in Oma. “We were told that they were absolutely safe.”
The plant operators built or renovated the public relations buildings — called “P.R. buildings” — attached to their plants. Before
In Higashidori, a town in northern
Here in Shika, more than 100,000 guests last year visited the P.R. building where
The nuclear establishment also made sure that government-mandated school textbooks underemphasized information that could cast doubt on the safety of nuclear power. In Parliament, the campaign was led by Tokio Kano, a Tepco vice president who became a lawmaker in 1998. Mr. Kano, who declined to be interviewed for this article, returned to Tepco as an adviser after retiring from Parliament last year.
In 2004, under the influence of Mr. Kano and other proponents of nuclear power, education officials ordered revisions to textbooks before endorsing them. In one junior high school social studies textbook, a reference to the growing antinuclear movement in
The effect could be seen in opinion polls that even after
The nuclear establishment itself came to believe its own safety myth and “became entangled in its own net,” said Hitoshi Yoshioka, an author of a book on the history of Japan’s nuclear power and a member of a panel established by the prime minister to investigate the causes of the Fukushima disaster.
He said that helped explain why, at Fukushima, Tepco failed to carry out emergency measures in case of a complete loss of power, which is what happened when the tsunami hit in March. Others have said that the nuclear establishment’s embrace of the safety myth also makes it possible to understand what, in hindsight, was the most glaring hole in the safety measures at
Kantaro Suzuki contributed reporting.
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs