JAPAN | Weighing economic growth against nuclear risks makes no sense

Posted on August 1, 2011

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JAPAN | MAINICHI | 1 August 2011

An employee for Nissan Motor Co. works on cars on the assembly line at the Japanese automaker's Oppama plant in Yokosuka near Tokyo on Saturday, July 2, 2011. (AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama)

Every time I hear someone say that while they understand the motivation behind calls for the abandonment of nuclear energy, there is the issue of economic growth to consider, there’s a certain person who comes to mind: Osamu Shimomura.

Shimomura, who passed away in 1989 at the age of 78, was an economist who preached that we must not seek economic growth when the conditions for growth are not in place. (His life is well-documented in Kotaro Sawaki’s “Kiki no saisho” (Prime minister in crisis) and Yo Mizuki’s “Omoi yokoshima nashi” (Thoughts that bear no evil)).

One of the leading economists of the post-war era, Shimomura was a major proponent of the then-ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s rapid economic growth policy in the 1960s. Following the energy crisis of 1973, however, he became the standard-bearer of zero economic growth. Quick to read the changing times, Shimomura boldly argued for the adaptation to a new era.

With nuclear power plants being shut down one after another today, the situation resembles that of the 70s, during which oil imports came to a halt due to output adjustment measures taken by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

Once the oil embargo was applied, Shimomura quickly went from being a growth proponent to a zero-growth advocate. Questioned about his drastic turnabout, Shimomura explained in the 1976 book “Zero seicho: dasshutsu no joken” (Conditions for escaping from zero growth) that it wasn’t his thinking that changed; rather, it was the conditions granted the economy that had changed.

Bureaucratic, political and industry leaders, as well as mainstream economists have continued to pursue economic growth today. They’ve now been exposed to the dangers of nuclear power, but have yet to realize that a fundamental environmental transformation preventing growth has taken place. They think they can weigh the pros and cons of nuclear risk and economic growth, and that they are free to choose their course.

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)

That’s where they’re wrong. I, too, didn’t grasp this until March 11, but as catastrophic developments continue to unfold, nuclear power plants pose an imminent threat. We can’t choose to downplay dangers because we value growth. While there’s been a trend to regard the effects of exposure to low levels of radioactive materials as minor, there remain no prospects of safely disposing of highly radioactive spent fuel.

If Shimomura were alive today, I believe he would have taken the risks of nuclear energy as a fundamental change in the conditions and placated the nuclear-dependent economic-growth defenders.

In 1987, Shimomura wrote “Nippon wa warukunai: warui no was Amerika da” (Japan is not at fault: America is), a scathing criticism of the avaricious capitalism of the U.S. and Japan’s abject subservience to it. Although Shimomura’s book was largely ignored in the realm of mainstream public debate — focused as it was on putting Japan-U.S. cooperation before everything else — the book has received recognition with the passing of time, and a paperback edition was published in 2009.

“As things develop and become more complex, there is a tendency for the basics to be forgotten,” Shimomura begins. He continued that the purpose of economic activity is to support people’s lives, but in reality, the operational efficiency of global corporations tend to be placed before a nation’s economy and people’s lives.

The frustrations Shimomura expresses in the book are refreshing even today, 24 years after it was first published: “What is the point of envisioning an economy without people and refusing to look at the real people themselves?”

The insatiable capitalism in which money is of utmost significance has taken the entire world by storm, and nuclear power plants have become a major pillar of economic growth. China has announced that it will build 70 nuclear reactors by 2020 generating the equivalent of 1 million kilowatts of power each. The strain produced by such rapid economic expansion has no doubt been evidenced by the high-speed train accident that took place in eastern China on July 23.

In this March 15, 2011 photo released by Tokyo Electric Power Co., smoke rises from the badly damaged Unit 3 reactor, left, next to the Unit 4 reactor covered by an outer wall at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear complex in Okuma, northeastern Japan. (AP Photo/Tokyo Electric Power Co.)

Shutting down nuclear power plants does not signify a return to the Edo period. Scaling back our power consumption levels to those of five or 10 years ago will not force the country to collapse. If we take a moment to review our dependence on nuclear energy and can ascertain that what we really want is to reconstruct a safe society and a healthy economy, there’s really no difference between abandoning nuclear energy altogether or scaling back the degree of our dependence.

Those guilty of falling into mass hysteria are not the members of the public calling for the abandonment of nuclear energy. It is the nation’s leaders who are obsessed with economic growth. (By Takao Yamada, Expert Senior Writer)

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