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The Tatemae and Honne of Reopening Nuclear Plants

Bloomberg has up a pretty good story about the state of nuclear energy in Japan today. The country is currently enjoying some economic gains, but the weak yen is proving a mixed blessing. It’s good for exports but terrible for imports - Or to put it more specifically, it’s good for Japan’s industries but bad for importing massive amounts of coal and natural gas to fill in the nuclear gap. Anti-nuclear forces have lost vigor and local officials (which have to approve the restart of any local nuclear facility) are relenting on keeping the plants shut.

The article is nicely done and makes a fairly complex topic easier to understand. Still this paragraph stuck out as oddly wrong headed:

The real challenge is the local governments, which have veto rights. Surprisingly, a recent poll among 135 cities located in nuclear evacuation zones showed that 49 percent of mayors would agree to a restart. The official (what Japanese call “tatemae”) argument is: Nobody likes to live near such a plant, but there they are, as toxic as ever (though certainly less volatile than when switched on), and we don’t know much about disposing of unused nuclear-power plants. So, we might as well turn them back on. The real (“honne”) story is that the plant owner/operators -- the ten local monopolists that run Japan’s energy system -- pay their annual “dues” to the localities, not just in the form of jobs but straight money to communities and incumbent local governments.

Writer Ulrike Schaede does not tell how he decided that these were the tatemae and honne stories, but both are breathtakingly cynical – I’m not sure why the first is even considered a viable argument to offer the public.

Allowing for the trauma of the Fukushima Daiichi accident – and it would be wrong to soft pedal it, even if the end result is the complete closure of all the facilities – I cannot imagine the mayors being so blasé in the first instance or so rapacious in the second.

Let’s take a look at that second part again:

The real (“honne”) story is that the plant owner/operators -- the ten local monopolists that run Japan’s energy system -- pay their annual “dues” to the localities, not just in the form of jobs but straight money to communities and incumbent local governments.

This sounds exceptionally sinister and corrupt. But what is being said here is that the facilities (or their shadowy monopolist overlords) employ local people and contribute to their communities. But don’t these activities constitute good corporate behavior?

Those “incumbent local governments” have kept the plants shut for the last two years, so they do seem to follow the public will even at the cost of a honey deal. And as public opinion starts to move back in the direction of restarting the plants, so does the government change its view. One might wish that officials would do what is best for their citizens rather than follow the variable whims of public opinion, but it’s not diabolical. If it were, virtually every politician everywhere would be in Hell (easy one – go for it!)

Rather than precipitously decommission all the facilities, Japan’s government (or governments – it’s more “volatile” than a running nuclear plant) instead waited to see if the passage of time would smooth over understandably sharp public displeasure. It seems to be happening, as the article points out. Schaede really has done a good job here  - but the shadow thrown over local government does seem badly overstated, unfair and without much basis.


jimwg said…
A high-five to any Japanese official who bucks the anti-nuclear mob at risk to their careers. Are any well-educated types stepping to the plate hawking nuclear there too? Be very interesting to see the kind of reception "Pandora's Promise" would get in Japan! What's maddening here is the thought-poisoning mantra that a good reason to close nuclear plants is because to a one their having an accident is _inevitable_.

James Greenidge
Queens NY
Anonymous said…
When using nuclear power an accident IS very much inevitable, just like it is for anything else made by man. It's a simple matter of probability and everyone operating the plants recognizes this. When designing or operating a plant you don't talk about eliminating the possiblity of an accident, you talk about reducing the probability of one as determined by an in-depth probabalistic risk analysis. What people need to understand isn't that nuclear plants are 100% safe, it's that the benefits of nuclear plants outweigh the risks.

Planes, trains and cars crash all the time killing tens of thsousands a year but nobody thinks twice about using them. Hurricanes, tornados and earthquakes happen every years and kill thousands but people still build houses where they might occur. Even the medicine we save us isn't perfect, most drugs have negative side effects that kill a few people each year, all surgeries have a risk of death, even non-invasive exams like a CT scan can causes cancer and kill you.

If people are just willing to make the same rational cost-benefit analysis about using nuclear plants that they do about using cars (which are far more deadly) then I'm sure they would find that nuclear plants are an acceptable risk.
jimwg said…
Thing is, when has a gas or oil plant or station been refused a license or the right to run based on the premise that an accident is inevitable? This is the big hypocrisy with anti-nukers. "Inevitable" in their effective word games book means next week to ten years from now for _certain_. "Inevitable" here means no matter how well a plant is run it's just going to have an deadly accident well in your lifetime. It MUST. Not a statistical thousand years from now; it WILL inevitably fail and kill long BEFORE you reach retirement. Yet that mantra still flies to the unthinking fearful even though Indian Point's been around near 40 years! I live near New Jersey where infamous Elizabeth NY is choked and lined with oil and gas and chem and god knows what other plants under its hze, and I wonder just how much of that would be running if it was pressed on groundbreaking day that an accident was "inevitable." They get a royal slide but nuclear doesn't, despite a mortality and damage second to none over 60 years worldwide. So when anti-nukers say an accident at any nuke plant is inevitable, they're not just stretching stats but bald-faced biased.

James Greenidge
Queens NY

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