Given the inherently un-sustainable nature of nuclear power generation – to say nothing of its profound lack of resilience – I have no doubt that the future of Japan, and indeed the world, will ultimately be nuclear free, perhaps within mere decades (albeit with residual nuclear contamination persisting for tens of thousands of years, well into the “Long Now”).
But what I hadn’t anticipated until recently is the possibility of Japan shutting down all of its nuclear reactors within months. Yet it is a real possibility, and if it does happen it will propel Japan far ahead of other industrialized countries in transitioning to a more harmonious relationship with nature.
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan was recently quoted as seeing the country as a nuclear-free nation. But unlike similar pronouncements from Germany, which pledges to be nuclear-free by 2022, Japan may become nuclear-free literally within a year.
That would be quite a feat for a country that only five months ago relied on nuclear plants for about 30% of its electrical power.
By some measures, the country is already two thirds of the way to becoming nuclear-free. Thirty eight of the country’s 54 reactors are currently shut down, and there are no dates set for their return to service.
Aside from the irretrievably damaged reactors at the Fukushima power plant, reactors have been shut down across Japan for maintenance checks. The only problem is once the nuclear plants are shut down, none have been restarted as local governments have balked against their reopening.
By law, all Japanese reactors must be temporarily shut down for maintenance every 13 months. All of currently operating reactors have maintenance scheduled by next spring. As a result, if the present pattern of indefinite shutdowns after maintenance inspections continues, Japan could effectively be nuclear-free by next spring.
In the meantime, it is painful to watch the day-to-day suffering of everyone involved (e.g., here and here) in the still-unfolding Fukushima nightmare as widespread and growing contamination continues to be revealed, along with varying degrees of malfeasance (a serious example here). The struggle in Japan between those desperate to maintain the nuclear status quo (certain industries, certain government agencies and certain academicians, etc.) and those who are calling for fundamental change and a return to more sustainable power generation mirrors in many ways the emergent conflicts between the old and new paradigm seen elsewhere in the world.
What is interesting to observe is how this struggle in Japan is playing out within the government power structures and between the government and the public. Top-down calls for setsuden, or power conservation, are being impressively embraced by the mainstream, while certain branches of the government, such as the Ministry of Agriculture, Forests and Fisheries (MAFF), are engaged in promising and highly constructive endeavors, like promoting the revitalization of satoyama, or managed socio-ecological systems.
Here is an example of a mainstream unique-to-Japan view that goes beyond simple acceptance and gaman (gritting one’s teeth) and speaks to a marked and growing yearning for a long-lost simplicity:
Mitsuharu Taniyama, 73, the owner of a small insurance business, has directed his staff to dim the lights at their office on the second floor of a small building in Yokohama.
“As you can see, our office is surrounded by windows, so after dark people walking outside would notice if it was all lit up inside here,” Mr. Taniyama said. “Now I would feel guilty.”
Like some Japanese of his generation, Mr. Taniyama said the current national campaign reminded him of restrictions on the use of lights during World War II. To avoid becoming the targets of nighttime air raids by American warplanes, families huddled around a single light bulb while making sure that no light was visible from the outside.
Behind the current enthusiasm for conservation, Mr. Taniyama also saw a rethinking of postwar Japan’s single-minded focus on economic growth. Many, he believed, were ready to renounce nuclear power even if that meant “time travel to the lifestyle that Japan had when it lost the war to America.”
Toward that end, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forests and Fisheries has been partnering with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in support of Japan’s sustainable agricultural systems, designating two sites in Japan for inclusion in a growing worldwide initiative, the Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS), whose aim is to “boost food and livelihood security and agri-‘cultural’ survival.” These two select sites, Sado Island (Niigata Prefecture) and Nodo Peninsula (Ishikawa Prefecture), were recently featured in an inspiring article, well worth reading, in the UN University’s OurWorld 2.0 web magazine.
While Japan’s internal struggles may be emblematic of similar struggles everywhere between old paradigm thinking and more evolved ways of being in the world that are gradually emerging into awareness and acceptance, I am particularly heartened by the possibility that Japan may set a critical example by exiting the nuclear power generation business well in advance of other industrialized countries, and if they succeed in doing so it will surely be a result of a continually evolving cooperation between the government, industry, and the public in making energy conservation, environmental safety and ecological harmony top priorities while ensuring the culture’s wellbeing.
In the midst of – and to some degree a result of – the enormous challenges facing the country, Japan’s satoyama spirit is showing clear and promising signs of renewed vigor across the sectors and strata of society.