JAPAN | Lack of responsibility between state, TEPCO for nuclear disaster has deep roots

Posted on July 4, 2011

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JAPAN | MAINICHI | 4 July 2011

In this June 1, 2011 file photo released by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), workers inspect equipment inside the cesium absorption tower, part of the radioactive water processing facilities at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture. (AP Photo/TEPCO)

Is compensation over ongoing nuclear disaster the responsibility of Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) which operates the stricken nuclear power plant, or the national government?

According to a new nuclear disaster compensation bill that has been submitted by the Cabinet and is slated for deliberations in the Diet this week, the answer is this: “TEPCO, of course, but the government will provide TEPCO with some assistance.” The outlook for the bill’s passage remains uncertain.

The lacking presence of this bill and the challenges that lie ahead of it are symbolic of Japan’s uneasiness stuck between the promotion of nuclear power and its elimination.

If nuclear power is to be given another chance, it is obvious that the only viable way would be for the national government to take over its promotion. The government, however, has yet to clarify its stand. The proposed bill ambiguously states that the government will “aid” the power company. It’s an equivocal stopgap measure that neither pardons nor kills off TEPCO, and can be interpreted as the willingness or lack thereof on the part of the government to actually shell out any money. This sums up the essence of the nuclear disaster compensation bill.

In this photo released Monday, April 18, 2011 by Tokyo Electric Power Co., Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Banri Kaieda, left, confers with Advisor to the Prime Minister Goshi Hosono as TEPCO and government officials take part in the first joint meeting of the nuclear crisis management task force Friday, April 15, 2011 at TEPCO headquarters in Tokyo to deal with the ongoing worst-ever nuclear plant disaster in Japan.(AP Photo)

In this photo released Monday, April 18, 2011 by Tokyo Electric Power Co., Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Banri Kaieda, left, confers with Advisor to the Prime Minister Goshi Hosono as TEPCO and government officials take part in the first joint meeting of the nuclear crisis management task force Friday, April 15, 2011 at TEPCO headquarters in Tokyo to deal with the ongoing worst-ever nuclear plant disaster in Japan.(AP Photo)

There was a tussle within the Cabinet prior to the creation of the bill, between 72-year-old Minister of State for Economic and Fiscal Policy Kaoru Yosano and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, 47.

Article 3 of the existing law on nuclear damage compensation states: “When nuclear damage has occurred owing to or during the operation of a reactor, etc., the nuclear operator who is engaged in the operation of the reactor, etc. on that occasion shall be liable for the damage.” However, it goes on to make an exception “for the case where the damage is caused by an extraordinarily grave natural disaster or by a serious social disturbance.

Yosano argued that the latest case constituted “obvious exemption (from liability),” to which Edano objected: “Unless we make law revisions, we cannot reach that conclusion about the situation.”

Yosano is a favored disciple of former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, a pioneering figure in Japan’s nuclear power policy. After graduating from college, Yosano joined the newly established Japan Atomic Power Co. on Nakasone’s recommendation, where he dealt with insurance. Edano, meanwhile, is a lawyer. This makes the dispute one between two experts.

In the end, Edano won out. This meant that TEPCO, which faces a massive excess of debts, will not be able to newly procure funds, threatening the stable supply of electricity. This was what led the Cabinet to concoct the new nuclear disaster compensation bill.

Demonstrators parade past the headquarters of Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) during their anti-nuclear power protest, in Tokyo, Sunday, May 1, 2011. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

Demonstrators parade past the headquarters of Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) during their anti-nuclear power protest, in Tokyo, Sunday, May 1, 2011. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

Asked why Yosano buried the hatchet, he responded: “I was told by the Finance Ministry that the national government does not compensate disaster victims, and if TEPCO were to be exempted from paying restitution, then there would be no one to act as the agent of compensation.”

The conflict has deep roots. I found through some research that the Kishi Cabinet, in stepping up its efforts toward the peaceful use of nuclear power, established a team of experts in 1958 led by renowned civil-law scholar Sakae Wagatsuma, to advise the government on the issue of compensation in the case of a nuclear disaster.

The team, which looked into how the issue of compensation was being handled in industrialized nations, submitted a report stating that state compensation payments were necessary in worst-case scenarios. However, in the process of deliberating and passing the current law on nuclear damage compensation, which took the experts’ recommendations into account and went into effect in 1961, state compensation was effectively eliminated.

A section chief at the then Ministry of International Trade and Industry who worked on the bill revealed in a roundtable discussion that the watering down of state liability had been the wish of the Ministry of Finance at the time. In the discussion, featured in the Oct. 15, 1961 issue of legal journal Jurist, the section chief said that the Finance Ministry had brushed off possible stipulation of state redress, declaring that “the state had never assumed direct responsibility for victims since the Meiji era.”

Wagatsuma, who moderated the roundtable discussion, expressed regret upon hearing what had happened behind the law-making scenes. “To say that because the operator has no responsibility, neither does the state, and to deal with nuclear disasters in the same way as natural disasters like the (1959) Isewan Typhoon (Typhoon Vera) … this is such a shame. If things were going to turn out this way, I feel we should have given things more thought.”

In this March 20, 2011 aerial file photo taken by a small unmanned drone and released by Air Photo Service, the crippled Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant is seen in Okumamachi, Fukushima prefecture. From top to bottom: Unit 1, Unit 2, Unit 3 and Unit 4.  (AP Photo/Air Photo Service)

In this March 20, 2011 aerial file photo taken by a small unmanned drone and released by Air Photo Service, the crippled Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant is seen in Okumamachi, Fukushima prefecture. From top to bottom: Unit 1, Unit 2, Unit 3 and Unit 4. (AP Photo/Air Photo Service)

As it turns out, the irresponsibility of the government and TEPCO in the latest nuclear disaster has its roots in events that transpired half a century ago. Nuclear power plants were still in their planning stages at the time, but today we live in a nuclear-dependent society. And still, the avoidance of responsibility continues, and it is by extension that the latest nuclear disaster compensation bill has emerged.

The three criteria that Prime Minister Naoto Kan has listed as conditions for his resignation are the passage of the second supplementary budget for fiscal 2011, a special government bond bill and a renewable energy bill. The new nuclear disaster compensation bill didn’t make the cut. This points to Kan’s glaring lack of awareness regarding the significance of the problem. I question his sensibilities.

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