As the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant continues to reverberate, two diverging plotlines are developing in Japan: Ordinary citizens are becoming increasingly anxious about nuclear power, even taking to the streets in rare protest, Meanwhile, their government is moving back into its old and comfortable embrace with the nuclear industry.
Former prime minister Naoto Kan, who was in office on March 11 when a tsunami triggered a series of terrifying explosions and meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi, declared in the aftermath that the country should become nuclear-free. It's a position that polls suggested had 70 per cent support.
But Mr. Kan was blamed by the public and the media for dithering at the height of the crisis, and was forced to resign in August. His successor, Yoshihiko Noda, quickly declared that he wants to see the country's nuclear reactors restarted by next summer.
On Thursday, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported that anti-nuclear members of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan now feel isolated and ignored as Mr. Noda's government prepares to once more back nuclear power.
Mr. Noda's reversal of his predecessor's policy is likely influenced by the deep links between the Japanese government and the nuclear industry. For decades, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (better known as Tepco) and the country's other main utilities have stacked their boards of directors with ex-government officials who once worked in the same ministries charged with overseeing the nuclear industry.
The public's desire for change is an afterthought in Japan's political system, which has been in crisis for far longer than the electricity grid.
Trepidations about nuclear power spiked again in recent days as a series of radioactive hotspots were discovered in the Japanese capital and two nearby cities. A neighbourhood in Tokyo's Setagaya district – over 200 kilometres from Fukushima Daiichi – was briefly cordoned off Thursday and urgent news flashes were sent over the Kyodo news wire after sky-high radiation levels were detected on a street there.
The source turned out to be materials stored under the floor of one Setagaya home – strange, through unrelated to Fukushima. But the fact that people are still walking around their neighbourhoods with dosimetres seven months after the disaster underscores how worried many Japanese remain about the nuclear power that provides 30 per cent of their country's energy. Technology that was long considered safe is no longer trusted.
In the minds of many Japanese – 60,000 of whom joined a protest called "Goodbye Nuclear Power Plants" in the centre of Tokyo last month – the country needs to wean itself as quickly as possible off nuclear power. Many fear that the March 11 catastrophe, which saw four reactors go into various stages of meltdown after the Fukushima plant was swamped by the massive tsunami, might not be a once-in-a-generation happening. Japan, they point out, is a narrow country with 54 nuclear reactors and some 2,000 earthquake fault lines.
Forty of those reactors have been shut since the disaster, and the Japanese public demonstrated its willingness to do their part by reducing power consumption by 18 per cent this summer in an impressive effort to avoid blackouts.
The Fukushima disaster, and anger at Tepco's handling of it, has persuaded some Japanese to try and get off the company's power grid – no easy task given that the company is a quasi-monopoly in the Tokyo area and alternatives are few. (Tepco is due to pay some $50-billion to residents of Fukushima prefecture affected by the disaster, a bill that may send the company into bankruptcy. But the government still hasn't moved to deregulate the electricity market and allow competition.)
"Tepco has had a monopoly so long that it's hard to create other sources," said Naoyuki Taniguchi, executive manager of corporate strategy at Ennet Corporation, one of a handful of smaller electricity providers in a country where ten regional giants control about 98 per cent of the market.
Mr. Taniguchi said his company – which relies mostly on natural gas and serves about 7,000 business customers – has seen a surge in orders since the Fukushima crisis began. "We don't have the capacity to meet all the requests," he said.
One reason people want to switch is anger at Tepco. Another is cost.
Despite economies of scale working against them, Mr. Taniguchi said Ennet could offer prices that were often 15 per cent cheaper than Tepco and the other regional monopolies since they didn't spend as much money on "advertising and political donations" as their bigger rivals.
Asahi Shimbun recently revealed that Tepco spends hundreds of thousands of dollars a year buying tickets for its employees to attend political fundraisers. An unnamed Tepco official quoted in the article was blunt about the intent. "It is important to keep friendly relations with politicians, particularly those in power, on a regular basis to maintain the general trend of promoting nuclear power policy."