Fukushima: Three Months Later

News Abroad

Frank Uekoetter is a Dilthey Fellow of the VolkswagenStiftung and Deputy Director of the Rachel Carson Center in Munich, Germany. His books include The Green and the Brown. A History of Conservation in Nazi Germany (2006) and The Age of Smoke. Environmental Policy in Germany and the United States, 1880-1970 (2009).

Imagine it’s the year 2025.  You’re traveling the Japanese island of Honshu, and as you move north of Tokyo, you remember there was a nuclear incident near the city of Sendai a few years ago.  You stumble across a barbed wire fence and find a big poster that reads:  “Cleaning up Fukushima Daiichi was a huge engineering challenge.”

It’s something of an understatement.

Three months after the March 11 earthquake, with several reactors at Fukushima still out of control, this hypothetical may seem to be a bit cynical. Unfortunately, it’s not fiction.  This is what I saw and read when I visited the Three Mile Island nuclear complex near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1993.  The interpretation offered by the site’s visitor’s center suggested that what is considered the worst nuclear disaster in American history has somehow morphed into a success story, ripe with technological accomplishments, milestones, and lots of numbers.

The power of the nuclear complex does not stop once reactors are up and running.  Nuclear proponents also seek to define historical narratives, and are clearly not ashamed of anything.  In fact, Three Mile Island enthusiasts could also buy T-shirts with a smiling cooling tower that designated the happy wearer “Mr. Cool” (in case you are worried, gender equality was guaranteed with a corresponding “Ms. Cool” shirt).

To be sure, Fukushima is too big a disaster to simply shrug off.  Still, so far, reactions to the disaster leave much to be desired.  On May 21, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, and Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan agreed to facilitate the exchange of information on nuclear safety in the future—not the kind of agreement you sign when you want to move away from nuclear power.  In a previous article, I suggested that the empire would strike back.  It was not a daring prophecy.

Still, there is a chance that Fukushima may prove to be a turning point in nuclear development.  Disaster struck at the most inopportune moment, just as proponents were becoming optimistic about the prospect of a second nuclear age.  All over the world, new reactors are being planned or are under construction.  The sole exception so far is Germany, where Fukushima was the nail on nuclear energy’s coffin.

Fukushima will not put an end to the construction of reactors worldwide.  It will take much more to break the technological momentum of the nuclear complex—though it would be obscene to speculate what might actually do the job.  Still, there is a chance that Fukushima will shape the course of future development.  Chances are that the second nuclear age will once more vindicate Karl Marx, who noted, on the occasion of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte’s the coup d’état in France, that all great events in world history happen twice—“the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

In most countries, criticisms of nuclear power have become an issue of the political left, which is usually closely tied to the environmental community.  It is thus easy to forget that the business case for nuclear power was never very convincing.  Reactors are expensive to build, cheap to run, and expensive to dismantle.  For most competing technologies, it is the other way around.  For electric utilities managers of the 1950s and 1960s, shunning nuclear power was simply good business.

This paradigm changed due to three transnational motives which drove nuclear development in the decades after World War II.  The first was a broad feeling that nuclear technology was the future.  Thanks to its unprecedented potential, it promised an unlimited supply of energy, and not only in the form of electric power.  The second motive was the predictions that extended the postwar growth of energy consumption into the future, suggesting a burning need to expand generating capacity.  The third motive was a sense of national pride:  the command of the “peaceful atom” was something that no self-respecting country would want to miss out on.

Recent decades have deflated many of these motives.  Nowadays, few people believe that nuclear technology will be an indispensable part of technological progress in the twenty-first century.  Today, nobody dreams about nuclear locomotives, planes, or small, portable reactors—nuclear reactors are simply considered one of several ways to generate electricity.  It is equally hard to imagine a repeat of the energy predictions of the postwar boom years:  with ongoing deindustrialization and meager demographic predictions in many Western countries, it would take a very brave businessman to hedge a bet on another energy bonanza.  The prestige factor is now tarnished by the awareness that nuclear nations may be tinkering with the bomb.

Of course, advocates push the argument that nuclear energy is carbon-neutral (which it isn’t—it is just less carbon-intensive than fossils), or that it reduces dependency on foreign fossil fuel suppliers.  But let’s be realistic:  what we see here is a solution in search of a problem.  Even when nuclear power was still young and attractive, it took generous subsidies and state guaranties to coax energy companies into going atomic.  It remains to be seen whether this can happen again in a neoliberal age, with nations deeply in debt, and governments that would need to explain this boondoggle to their constituencies.

This is all the more true since energy companies would not be the sole recipients of subsidies.  It is often forgotten that individual nuclear plants already faced local opposition before there was a visible civic movement.  People felt that a nuclear complex meant tremendous change for their communities. After a highly-publicized nuclear accident like Fukushima or Three Mile Island, they know that they could also mean the end of their communities.  Will locals be ready to accept that kind of risk?

What all this comes down to is that the future of nuclear power may rest with a specific type of regime:  authoritarian states that can suppress local resistance and distribute subsidies on an obscene scale.  With centralized planning and dreams of autarky, one could probably muster the political capital to build a few more reactors.  Time will tell what nuclear power means for the economy and society of these countries.  But what is already clear is that these reactors will say something about the nature of a country’s political system.

One day, when scholars sit down to write the history of the twenty-first century, they might find Fukushima a defining moment that differentiated democratic, anti-nuclear countries like Germany from authoritarian, pro-nuclear regimes like China.

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