In Japan and the United States, many fear the dangers of nuclear power — but who in charge cares?

North Korea is not the only country casting a long nuclear shadow over Japan and America. The citizens of both nations are right now under threat from precarious atomic programs — ones which are being forced on them by their own governments.

In Japan, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry — historically one of the nation’s most effective bureaucratic agencies — insists on advancing a nuclear-energy construction program that many of the affected communities are questioning or flatly opposing.

The program is run by an industry-government nexus — Cabinet and ministry-level agencies networking with enormous utility companies and subcontractors, and even the suppliers of cheap day-laborers — that has proven chronically dishonest with the public. The nexus also has the distinction of being responsible for one of only two fatal nuclear-power radiation accidents in world history, that in the village of Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture, in 1999. The other was Chernobyl in Ukraine in the former Soviet Union in 1986.

Across the Pacific, there is an unremarkable ridge rising from a somber Nevada desert landscape, not far from the sparkle of Las Vegas’ lights. It is called Yucca Mountain.

There, the U.S. government, despite strong opposition from the state of Nevada, is bent on completing history’s most costly civil works project — one that will create a gigantic radiation risk that will menace the region for a quarter of a million years.

In both America and Japan, dependent as they are on imported resources for so much of their energy, nuclear power has been sold to the people by their governments as a seeming gift of the gods of science. Japan, with 52 active reactors, already relies on it for 30 percent of its electricity; the United States, with 118 reactors, for 20 percent.

Now people in both countries are afraid of the “peaceful” atom, and some fear for their very lives. How could this have happened?

Nuclear power is not a mystery; it is merely a technology — albeit one demanding the same careful safeguards and control priorities as nuclear weapons themselves.

But it requires only the errors and fatuities of man to let loose the dangerous genie in the bottle of the nuclear reactor. Just look at Japan’s recent record.

In 1995, the experimental, plutonium-powered Monju fast-breeder reactor at Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, had to be shut down when its cooling system leaked more than a ton of volatile liquid sodium. It wasn’t the leak itself that shocked the country so much as the government’s attempted cover-up of the incident, including falsified reports and altered video evidence.

In March 1997, an explosion and fire at the Tokai plant irradiated 37 workers, none seriously, but released radiation into the open air that registered as far away as Tokyo, 120 km to the southwest.

In September 1999, three improperly instructed workers at another part of the Tokai plant, a fuel-processing facility, set off a nuclear criticality reaction when they took a “short cut” by using a bucket to mix a uranium compound with nitric acid — and put in almost seven times the proper amount of uranium.

Yucca Mountain in Nevada, which is contentiously slated to store all America’s high-level nuclear waste. PHOTO COURTESY OF U.S. DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY

It was enough to expose them to Hiroshima bomb-level doses of radiation. Two died, 12 other employees were poisoned and 663 local residents were irradiated in the 20-hour chain reaction that followed. More than 300,000 people had to be evacuated.

In August 2002, Japan’s largest electric-power provider, Tokyo Electric Power Company, admitted it had been misreporting reactor inspection records to hide flaws for a decade. The company, whose atomic infrastructure provides 40 percent of Tokyo’s electricity, was ordered to shut down all its 17 reactors for new, government-mandated safety inspections. This shutdown was completed by mid-April 2003.

Public confidence challenged
Tokyo got through the summer without power outages, only to read in October a Kyoto Sangyo University researcher’s calculations that a large-scale, Chernobyl-style leak of a reactor in Japan could, depending on various factors, kill as many as 400,000 and cost nearly 500 trillion yen.

These and other mishaps have given the Japanese people something to think about: Almost a quarter of Japan’s 863 reported nuclear-related incidents and failures between 1966 and 1995 were caused by human error.

Public confidence in the safety record was again challenged when the government’s White Paper on Nuclear Energy, an “annual” report that had gone unissued for 5 1/2 years — “due largely,” the Cabinet Office’s Atomic Energy Commission said, “to serious incidents that fueled safety concerns” — finally was published in December 2003.

In it, the commission urged the promotion of “broad-based public hearings aimed at deepening mutual understanding” between the public and administrative and industry officials on the subject of nuclear power policies.

Skeptics may have wondered whether such hearings would allow for an “understanding” of Japan’s atomic managers as incompetent, or negligent.

So who are these “managers”?

The Cabinet’s Atomic Energy Commission creates the nation’s nuclear-power policy drafts. There is the Industrial and Nuclear Safety Agency, and there is the former Science and Technology Agency, now reorganized as a part of the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry.

There are the usual electrical and construction industry suppliers who build the facilities; there are the 10 major electric utilities who finance and operate the supply of electric power to the nation (not all have nuclear reactors).

There is the Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute, and more prosaically there are suppliers of services and equipment such as Sumitomo Metal Mining Co., whose former subsidiary JCO Co. employed the inadequately trained workers responsible for triggering the Tokai disaster.

There are labor brokers from the big cities, who recruit day-laborers to keep costs down at the reactor plants by getting them to do the dirty and sometimes the dangerous work.

Another question: Who’s held responsible when things go wrong?

JCO had spent almost 15 billion yen by midsummer last year compensating local businesses whose sales suffered as a result of the mini-criticality at Tokai.

But responsibility differs, depending upon the results of the mishaps and consequent accident investigations. Human error is indicted far more often then nuclear technology itself.

Now, though, the technology is causing shock waves of its own. In Japan, the Federation of Electric Power Companies has released a report announcing that facilities and operating expenses required to establish the necessary complete nuclear-fuel recycling process in Japan will cost at least another 19 trillion yen (more than $170 billion) in the next 80 years.

That rips away the cloak of back-end expenses that had given the nuclear power industry the guise of cost-effectiveness. With the extra 1 yen to 1.5 yen this will tack onto the cost of every kilowatt-hour the atom generates in Japan, nuclear will be no cheaper than natural-gas-fired or coal-fired power plants, and could end up being more costly.

On top of this, the demand for electricity in Japan has begun to stagnate, due, commentators say, to the aging of the population, the restructuring of Japanese industry and the liberalization of the electric-power markets.

Renewable energy technologies such as wind, solar and hydrogen power could come to the price-competitive fore over the next 80 years. This, while costs to repair and update all the utilities and plants involved in the nuclear fuel cycle will remain, as part of nuclear energy’s sunk costs.

Popular resistance in areas where reactors now stand, or will be built, has already meant the government’s 2001 plan of adding 10 to 13 new reactors by the year 2010 is likely to be shrunk to just seven.

Yet the Cabinet Office’s Atomic Energy Commission, and by extension the government itself, still pushes nuclear power as the central plank of Japan’s energy policy for the future.

Japan, we all know, suffered history’s hellish lessons of the atom’s destructive capability. But Nevada, with no nuclear power plants at all, has learned painful lessons of its own since the press got hold of an unpublished federal survey which estimates that nuclear bombs tested above ground in the ranges of the Nevada desert from 1951 to 1963 (together with other detonations in the Soviet Union and on Pacific islands) caused a probable minimum of 15,000 cancer deaths among Americans from radioactive fallout.

Washington’s atomic “program” today is to gather and bury 77,000 tons of high-level nuclear waste now stored at 131 locations in 39 states — most of it spent reactor fuel from the 118 power plants, as well as material from numerous weapons facilities — inside Yucca Mountain. It is rousing a fear and loathing that would be familiar to Japanese.

Here too, the problems originate with pernicious political dishonesties and betrayals. Since 1950, the U.S. government has ordered the ever-accumulating quantities of spent fuels to be held in anti-radiation pools or casks at the plant sites while it searched for a permanent answer.

In 1983, Washington promised the power firms it would ready repositories by 1998. By 1987, four years later, it was clear that the residents of the 10 final-candidate states across the country were not about to accept lethal nuclear waste in their own backyards. Dozens of “drop dead” lawsuits opposing the Department of Energy’s proposals for even testing candidate sites — as many as 20 suits on file at a time — were soon emanating from those states’ capitols.

Legal obligations overturned
The DOE, spearheading the search, eventually found itself crumbling under these essentially political pressures. In the end it scrapped search plans for all the candidate sites — except Nevada. The DOE overturned many of its legal obligations of fairness and due process simply because the Congress was, in 1987, willing to back it by passing the “Screw Nevada Law,” as it became colorfully known. Nevada became the sole site targeted for the repository.

As James Flynn and Paul Slovic wrote in their policy-analysis report for Decision Research as long ago as 1995, “How [can] the program be considered a success if a repository were built only at exorbitant cost, after a long and bitter intergovernmental struggle, and in opposition to community, state and public values for a fair and equitable process and outcome?”

Neither the state government nor its 2 million residents — about 70 percent of whom are flatly opposed to the project — think the process equitable nor want to cooperate. Nevada immediately began enforcing its own laws and denying permits so as to hinder the testing that got under way at Yucca Mountain.

A long series of lawsuits, demands for further tests, scientific charges and counter-charges ensued. But the DOE, despite the discovery of two ancient volcanoes near the mountain and an earthquake registering 6 on the Richter scale 160 km west of it in 1993, persists in its position. It claims that the repository’s site, 305 meters below the crest of the ridge and the same distance above the area’s water table, will remain safe for the bureaucratically mandated limit of 10,000 years.

That time limit, incidentally, has no scientific basis. Plutonium, which will be mixed in with the spent uranium, requires almost 250,000 years to burn itself out of dangerous radioactivity.

Other difficulties appeared. Nine years ago, 245 meters below the mountain’s crown, a government geologist found traces of chemical by-product from 1950s nuclear-bomb testing in a sample of trickle-down rainwater.

If that could happen in less than 50 years, let alone 10,000, then to qualify as safe, Yucca Mountain obviously had to be turned from a “geologically guaranteed” natural repository to an engineered one.

However, the efficiency of thousands of titanium shields designed to cover the huge metal entombment casks in the 80 km of tunnels and galleries is already being questioned. As the casks will have to withstand constant temperatures of 160 degrees or more generated by their radioactive loads and the natural underground heat, there is concern lest they acquire their own sudden “criticality” that the shields could not contain.

Despite the major testing already done — an 8-km corridor and branch galleries have been driven into the mountain’s heart, and $8 billion of experiments have so far been conducted inside and outside the mountain — the project is still way behind schedule.

A formal construction permit must be filed within this year, and the DOE says it will begin loading the waste by 2010. It is racing now to complete its testing, but many other experts, ranging from analysts of the U.S. General Accounting Office to a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission itself, Edward McGaffigan, say that for various technical reasons 2015 is a much likelier date.

It’s not clear if the estimated total cost — $58 billion, some paid by the electrical utilities and possibly some by the taxpayers — will suffice, because no one knows how much of the 48,000 new tons of waste America’s reactors will produce while the repository is filled will be added to the existing 77,000 tons.

And no one knows what will be the ultimate cost of transporting the waste, by truck and train and possibly barge, through 43 states, within 1.5 km of the homes of at least 50 million Americans, to get it there. Some informed commentators are already talking of costs going as high as $308 billion.

All Las Vegas knows is that any mistakes at all — either due to human error, scientific miscalculation or some kind of natural disaster — will, to say the least, destroy its vital tourism business, possibly forever. And it knows that the possibility of the city growing westward toward Los Angeles, which would inevitably put homes closer and closer to the mountain, is dying a slow death.

In both Japan and the United States, one could observe that it’s all about the money. If Japan does not complete perfectly and on-schedule all the myriad components necessary to support the nuclear fuel cycle, the cost of atomically generated power will skyrocket.

If Washington can’t get its way, through the regulatory commissions and the courts, into the heart of Yucca Mountain, then it may face an astronomical $60 billion in penalties from 65 noncompliance lawsuits filed by private power companies citing the federal government’s violation of its contract obligations to start taking control of the waste by 1998. If awarded, this sum would be spent expanding the temporary waste-holding sites at each power plant, so that they could continue operating.

And every one of those dollars will come from the taxpayers.

But all the vitriol and illogic ultimately flow from someplace deeper than pocketbooks. These nuclear problems and the way they are handled have become problems that lie at the very heart of the social contract between citizen and government.

Moreover, they are made worse, not better, each year with the ever-growing capabilities, and promises, of the technologies that underlie them.

In the case of almost all major technological advances in modern history, governments in Japan and America — assuming them to be economically beneficial to the common good — have spearheaded investment in their application and worked to extend them across society: railroads, telephones, broadcasting, electrification, interstate highways . . . and nuclear energy.

But all these technologies exact social costs of one type or another — costs once assumed to be outweighed by the benefits. In our generation, however, new technologies do not necessarily deliver more good than bad.

Karel Van Wolferen, Professor of Comparative Political and Economic Institutions at Amsterdam University, points out that “the growth of technocratic forms of government conceals a falsehood.

“It is this: the citizen, who indeed is a citizen only because he is represented within the government, remains in charge. In reality the citizen is ever less represented in a technocracy.”

A true technocracy, in the sense of formal government, exists neither in Japan nor in America, as yet.

Both nations, though, because of the paths of their modern economic development, operate on many technocratic principles: There are no problems of government that are not in the end quantifiable, and so ultimately all can be solved using scientific methods — including the application of our ever-advancing technologies.

This ignores the political nature of society. Atomic power may be just one more technology, but even a technology may disrupt the constitutional rights of a sovereign populace when leaders permit its demands to take precedence over the political choices of the citizen.

It is the demands of such “national technologies” — those whose adoption is dictated by government — that then come to rule us. Even government leaders themselves become captive.

Now, as the nuclear crises prove, elected governments in Japan and America will no more take away the tyranny of the atom than they can take away seagoing freighters or banish jet airliners.

We live in an age of international terrorism. We must yield to the demands of still more technologies, which inspect our shoes, our bodies, our belongings. We must allow immigration authorities to photograph us, and thumbprint us, because these technologies preserve us from the danger.

They do little enough of that. What they do that is more important is transfer power over freedoms and privacies from the hands of the individual to the hands of the government agencies who adopt them.

What they do is further legitimize technology as an instrument of rule, while de-legitimizing the political authority we have over it. They subtract steadily, that is, from the sovereign rights of all citizens.

Robert L. Cutts is a college journalism instructor in Nevada who lived in Japan and reported on its social and industrial issues for more than 20 years.