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Sunday, Oct. 28, 2012
OUR PLANET EARTH
'Fresh Currents' charts the way to, and from, Fukushima
This month's column is about a book that is very much more than just a book: It is a work of art, a labor of love and a realizable dream of a better future for Japan. But I'm getting ahead of myself ...
A fortnight ago, on Oct. 12, Tokyo Electric Power Company's internal-reform task force admitted that the ongoing disaster triggered by the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant it operates was avoidable and that necessary "preparations were not made in advance."
Sadly, human error, acts of nature, and combinations of the two will always be to blame for tragedies that leave us pondering, "Why? "What if?" "If only ..."
In the lyrical wisdom of Elvis Costello, as a track title on his 1979 album "Armed Forces" cautions, "Accidents Will Happen."
Given this immutable truth, Japan has limited options regarding its energy future: To accept the status quo and the cronyism that taints its government-industry relations, leaving energy policy in the hands of those who prioritize political gain; or to pursue national energy security that puts a priority on safety and on sharing the costs and benefits, financial and technological, across all of the nation's regions and residents.
In a nutshell, Japan can either remain nuclear, with all the dangers that portends for these islands perched on the Pacific Rim of Fire — or it can pursue policies that foster and reward dramatic increases in energy conservation and efficiency and the development of alternative energies that are safe and widely decentralized.
Japan's feed-in tariff (FIT) system for renewable energy sources adopted in July is a step in the right direction, at last offering competitive compensation to those who invest in and develop alternative-energy sources. But it needs to be buttressed with a comprehensive framework of incentives that stimulate research and long-term investment.
Kyoto University Professor Shinya Yamanaka's recent award of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine confirms that world-class researchers are hard at work in Japan — but cutting-edge science isn't cheap. Japan must provide far more financial support for university research. In addition, it is essential that it puts in place long-term policies that allow corporations to invest with confidence in R&D, knowing their commitments will pay off.
In fact, if Japan can manage to muster the political will to act, this nation already has the options and ideas it needs, many of them laid out in that new book to which I so fulsomely referred, which is both a compilation of policy insights and suggested viable solutions to the energy fix Japan is in.
"Fresh Currents: Japan's Flow From a Nuclear Past to a Renewable Future" is a visual and intellectual smorgasbord, a compilation of eye-opening articles, insightful interviews, useful charts and graphs — and stunning artwork and photographs.
The book is a Kyoto Journal team effort by more than a dozen volunteer contributors, mostly foreigners, under the similarly voluntary editorial eye of long-standing JT writer and reporter Eric Johnston. I call it a labor of love because both the writing and the wonderful visuals make it clear that those involved care as much about this nation as anyone.
Perhaps the best place to begin is the back cover of the book, which carries a quote from Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva. Her words capture the essence of why "Fresh Currents" is so timely and essential:
"Fukushima has raised, once again, the perennial questions about human fallibility and human frailty, about hubris and man's arrogance in thinking he can control nature. The earthquakes, the tsunami, the meltdown(s) at Japan's nuclear power plant are nature's reminders of her power. ... Alternatives to nuclear energy are a thousand times more abundant and a million times less risky. To push nuclear plants after Fukushima is pure insanity."
"Fresh Currents" began taking shape soon after 3/11 and has been financed with donations collected via an indiegogo.com fundraising campaign last summer.
As Kyoto Journal Editor John Einarsen explains, "The myth that nuclear power can deliver us from the long-term hazards of fossil fuels has been shattered. Renewable energy, long dismissed as impractical, is being given serious reconsideration. Japan can and must take advantage of this opportunity to rethink and refocus its energy strategies. Doing so, Japan will set an example for the world to follow."
Following an introduction by Johnston, "Fresh Currents" is divided into two sections: "How We Got Here" and "The Way Forward."
"Even as Japan's nuclear-power industry trumpeted the end of the need to develop further energy sources," Johnston writes, "others in Japan, and around the world, were still asking: Is there a better tool to generate electricity, one that is cheaper, more easily accessible and safer? Might that energy be in the form of solar, or wind, or geothermal, mini-hydro or biomass? Or some other energy source we humans just haven't yet been able to imagine? In short, is there another, better way to build a secure energy future?"
Readers of the book will not be surprised to find that the answers to these questions are resoundingly affirmative, but this is almost beside the point.
"Fresh Currents" is a captivating work because it tells the story of Japan's energy journey — past, present and future — through the eyes of some of Japan's most observant writers, thinkers and activists.
Each section of the book opens with several pages titled "Facts & Figures" that offer pause for thought. Here are some examples:
• Amount of plutonium Japan has in storage internationally: more than 35 tons.
• Number of simple nuclear warheads 35 tons of plutonium could arm: 5,000.
• Japan's current installed nuclear-generation capacity: 46.15 gigawatts (GW).
• Japan's potential offshore wind-energy capacity: 1,600 GW.
The first essay in the collection, also by Johnston, looks back at the history of nuclear power in Japan, from Hiroshima to Fukushima. This, however, is not the version you will find in ministry-approved textbooks.
"Less than a decade after World War II ended in August 1945, Japan was moving forward with plans to harness nuclear power for its growing electricity needs," Johnston's opening paragraph states. It continues: "Despite the horrors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a well-coordinated propaganda campaign that played on people's hopes for a better life — and their fear of losing it all for want of electricity — would lead Japan, one of the world's most quake-prone countries, to build over 50 nuclear power plants. How this happened is a tale of secret wartime efforts by Japanese nuclear scientists, a right-wing nationalist who would dominate Japanese politics for nearly half a century, a media tycoon who worked with the CIA, a flamboyant pilot with a talent for self-promotion, Japan's most popular — and corrupt — postwar prime minister, and the collective hubris of what became known as the nuclear power village."
So, from the start of "Fresh Currents," there's a clear warning to readers that truth is indeed as strange as fiction.
Freelance writer and frequent JT contributor David McNeill then plunges into the present with a passionate and moving piece on the people of Tohoku and their efforts to endure adversities that few of us can even imagine.
"Can Tohoku recover?" asks McNeill, noting that the region may even mirror whether Japan can set itself back on its feet.
"Inevitably, the question leads to an even more fundamental one: What sort of country does Japan want to be? The nation's epic industrialization drive seems to have run out of steam. Its dream of energy self-sufficiency lies in ruins. Its population is aging and declining. Japan's squabbling political leadership seems powerless to stop the nation's slide down the economic league tables. By 2050, Japan may no longer even be considered a developed nation," he observes without hesitation.
Soon after, Eriko Arita, a JT staff writer, takes a disquieting look at Japanese media restraint with regard to criticism of the nuclear-power industry, touching on her own experience while working at national broadcaster NHK of its "self-restraint" regarding criticism of nuclear power in Japan.
Other highlights include an interview with Aileen Mioko Smith, one of Japan's most respected and experienced antinuclear activists, and a transcript of comments made in Tokyo at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan by freelance journalist Tomohiko Suzuki, who has written about links between laborers at nuclear power plants and the yakuza.
On the bright side, freelance writer and frequent JT contributor Winifred Bird is there with an upbeat story on the potential for decentralizing Japan's energy supply through a move toward local generation and consumption.
As well, landscape artist and Kyoto Journal contributing editor Brian Williams shares encouraging research in a piece titled "The Promise of Alternative Energy," which draws on the work of Dr. Mark Z. Jacobson and Dr. Mark A. Delucchi, of Stanford University and the University of California, Davis, respectively.
"By 2030, Jacobson and Delucchi envision wind fulfilling 50 percent of global energy demands ... solar accounting for 40 percent, geothermal and hydroelectric making up 8 percent, and waves and tidal sources providing the remaining 2 percent," notes Williams.
"Fresh Currents" also includes a guide to Japan's new FIT system (Johnson); an article on dams and less damaging alternatives (Jane Singer, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Global Environmental Studies at Kyoto University); a piece on the potential for smart grids in Japan (Richard B. Dasher, executive director of the Center for Integrated Systems at Stanford); and an introduction to the engaging environmental activism of a Buddhist priest (Jonathan Watts, an Asia-specialist journalist and writer).
Even if you don't live in Japan, "Fresh Currents" has something profound to offer. As the Kyoto Journal's Einarsen notes, "The writings in 'Fresh Currents' explore Japan's path forward from Fukushima to a renewable energy future — and why this is important, wherever you live."
In short, "Fresh Currents" is more than a book: It is a piece of living history that crystallizes the threshold upon which we stand today.