JAPAN | POINT OF VIEW/ Daisaburo Hashizume: Fukushima disaster may help avert worst-case scenario

Posted on July 2, 2011

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JAPAN | ASAHI SHIMBUN | 2 July 2011

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The Great East Japan Earthquake and the disaster it has triggered at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant will be marked as a major turning point for Japanese society. But I don’t believe the change will necessarily be for the worse.

Technology to use nuclear power was originally developed for military purposes, not for generation of electricity. The global reserves of uranium, which is used as a fuel for nuclear power generation, are not large. Atomic power plants also create the knotty problem of dealing with radioactive waste.

Due to public anxiety about radioactivity, Japanese nuclear power plants are located in various areas away from densely populated cities. But this is a very risky policy because the nation is crisscrossed by active faults.

As the international community agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to stem global warming, Japan decided to achieve its emissions targets by expanding the share of nuclear power in its overall energy mix. But the nuclear crisis has torpedoed the government’s plan to build more reactors.

We have no choice but to remain dependent on fossil fuels for power supplies for the time being. But we need to make a shift toward renewable energy sources, sooner or later.

If the planet’s temperature rises by three to four degrees, the human race would face far more catastrophic disasters than what struck northeastern Japan on March 11. Food production would fall sharply, resulting in chronic famines and conflicts all over the world. That would be a truly apocalyptic future of mankind.

If, however, the world learns necessary lessons from the Fukushima disaster and accelerates the shift toward renewable energy sources, it could avert the worst-case scenario.

Japan’s renewable energy options should be limited to solar thermal and geothermal power. Geothermal heat is a source of energy found abundantly in Japan.

Solar thermal generation doesn’t attract much attention in Japan because it is difficult to build large-scale solar thermal plants anywhere other than a desert. Internationally, however, solar heat will be the most important energy source of the future.

If Japan cannot significantly expand its solar thermal generation at home, it should build solar thermal power plants in deserts in countries such as China and India to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to obtain corresponding emission credits. In that way, Japan can benefit from the energy of strong sunlight falling on deserts.

The March 11 calamity has also caused some significant changes in the Japanese mind-set.

There are many Japanese who refuse to be influenced by groundless rumors about radioactive contamination and are willing to buy vegetables grown in the disaster-hit Tohoku region, if they are really safe, as a way to support the region’s rebuilding efforts.

If more people consider what they can do for disaster-stricken areas from their own perspectives and take actions accordingly, the nation’s public service spirit will be revived.

Nobody would criticize the government’s spending for rebuilding the infrastructure destroyed by the disaster. The public may even support a tax hike to finance such spending. Traditional public works projects have been constantly criticized as a form of wasteful spending of taxpayer money.

If infrastructure must be rebuilt from scratch, the policy priorities will become clear. Such public works projects also cast a spotlight on thankless jobs that usually don’t draw attention. The challenge will offer a great opportunity for people to take a fresh look at the foundations of society.

Japanese have traditionally been too used to the familiar environment in their nation-state to be good at building cooperative relationships with people in other countries.

In the wake of the disaster, Japan received warm-hearted support and sympathy from all over the world. This experience has taught Japanese the importance of international solidarity and empathy and opened their eyes to how Japan is supported by the international community.

From the viewpoint of what we have received from the rest of the world, we should consider what we can do for the people of the world and thereby redefine our nation’s role in the world.

It will be great if we can imagine the various hardships of our children and grandchildren and of people in other parts of the world and feel sympathy for them.

The earthquake and tsunami are no doubt tragic events, but I believe the disaster will catapult our nation into a new age.

(This article was compiled from an interview by Satoshi Ozawa.)

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Daisaburo Hashizume is professor of sociology at Tokyo Institute of Technology. Born in 1948, Hashizume is also active as a public commentator on a wide range of topics from politics and religions to environmental issues. His published works include “‘Tanso Kaikei’ Nyumon” (Introduction to carbon accounting), “Hajimete-no Gengo Game” (Language game for beginners)

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