What Future Does Nuclear Power Have in Japan?


Iitate is a ghost town. The senior citizens' home is one of the few buildings in which the lights are still on. The government didn't want to put the elderly residents through the ordeal of an evacuation. They remained behind in the contaminated area -- along with the nursing staff. "If our politicians were honest, they would seal off the area around Iitate forever," Sato says. "Then we could start a new life in another, uncontaminated area."

Nonetheless, the mayor of the community is busy overseeing cleanup operations in the city. Groups of workers wearing protective clothing and white masks are everywhere in Iitate. They remove contaminated soil from gardens and use high-pressure hoses to wash down building walls. They resemble Shinto priests celebrating a ritual cleansing.

But Sato doesn't believe in the decontamination. "The sprayers," he says, "are merely washing the cesium into the river."

Worries about the Food Supply

The radiation is spreading in unexpected ways. When a brand-new housing complex in Nihonmatsu, near Fukushima, was recently subjected to tests, it was found to be contaminated. The construction workers had built the concrete foundation using materials from a quarry located near the stricken nuclear power plant. Since then, a number of building projects have been put on hold -- even in Tokyo. Concerned citizens are insisting that all concrete be tested with a Geiger counter.

What primarily worries the Japanese, though, is their food supply. First, in stores across the country, beef turned up that came from cattle that had been fed contaminated hay. Afterwards, rice from a farm near Fukushima was shown to have elevated levels of cesium, despite the fact that government agencies had previously said it was safe to eat the grain.

The Japanese are deeply apprehensive. Koichi Kato, who heads a consumer cooperative in Tokyo, was always proud to offer his over 300,000 members fresh fish, meat and milk from northern Japan. But now many shoppers only buy what has been tested. In September, Kato ordered the purchase of four special devices to measure radiation levels in foodstuffs.

"Actually the energy giant TEPCO or the government should ensure food safety," he says, "but we can forget that." Efforts at Reducing Power Consumption

Even if, as many expect, Japan were to restart a number of shutdown reactors after allowing a certain diplomatic interval to elapse, the government's whole ambitious plans to build new nuclear power plants are no longer politically viable in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. Likewise, the sacrifices the Japanese are being asked to make are not about to change that either. They will have to brace themselves for energy shortages this summer. During the hot and humid season, air conditioners in offices and apartments normally operate at almost their maximum capacity.

Already last year, the government launched an appeal to reduce power consumption. It also instituted fines for companies that exceed certain quotas. This proved to be unnecessary, however, as the disciplined Japanese voluntarily came up with a wide range of ideas: Production plants moved their shifts to the weekend, while families cooled their homes with fans instead of power-hungry air conditioners. Now, during the winter, many civil servants are wrapping themselves in wool blankets to keep warm in barely heated offices.

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