Two Weeks On, Japan Deals with Nukes, Politics and Costs of Devastation

In San Francisco on Mar. 24, 2011, Steve Vogel analyzes the effects of the March 11 disaster (and afterwards) on Japan's political culture. (4 min., 17 sec.)

SAN FRANCISCO, March 24, 2011 — Two weeks after northeastern Japan was struck by a massive earthquake and tsunami, the country is still reeling from its aftermath and an ongoing nuclear crisis, after explosions occurred at the damanged Fukushima Daiichi plant. Officials announced the death toll has now topped 10,000 and at least 17,400 people are still missing.

Experts gathered at Asia Society Northern California said they were cautiously optimistic about the next few days, but if the nuclear crisis worsens, they noted, Japan's path to recovery would be long and challenging.

Joonhong Ahn, a Japan-born professor of nuclear engineering at UC Berkeley, said the radiation levels had stabilized and that the worst may be over. But, he added, the implications of the crisis would force a "fundamental rethink" over Japan’s nuclear energy program. He went on to say, however, that a nuclear-free Japan would be unimaginable because the country lacks coal, oil, and natural gas reserves and has relied on nuclear plants to provide some 30 percent of electricity supply.

Even if conditions improved, Anh said it would be years before anyone would really know what happened inside the plant. After the Three Mile Island accident in the US in 1979, Ahn said, "we needed a decade to find out what happened."

Ando Chuji, a Colonel in the Japan Air Self-Defense Force, applauded the government's handling of the crisis. In marked contrast to the last major earthquake in Japan — in Kobe in 1995 — the government quickly approved the use of the Self Defense Force (SDF) for the disaster. Some 100,000 personnel — more than half of total forces — are now working on disaster relief and cleanup. Ando said that it took 10 minutes after the quake for the governor of Iwate prefecture to call the SDF for help.

For now, the crisis has rallied Japan's political leaders around the embattled Naoto Kan administration. The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) government controls only the Lower House in Parliament and, until the crisis, had considerable difficulty in passing legislation. But now, the main opposition party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), has pledged cooperation on recovery-related bills and there is little talk of elections or a new Prime Minister.

While a number of observers see the crisis as Japan's breaking point, Berkeley political scientist Steven Vogel is more optimistic. He believes the crisis is more likely to unify and bring new purpose to the country, at least in the short-term. It will certainly drive "bolder and bigger thinking" at the top, said Vogel. "The question will be does Japan come up with the right solutions," he said.

Josh Harkinson of Mother Jones noted that the cleanup will cost at least $300 billion, making it the biggest disaster in human history. Perhaps 10 percent of that is covered by insurance, meaning that many Japanese will be left homeless. On the one hand, the cost is a huge burden for a country that already has the worst deficit among advanced countries. On the other, it will have a massive stimulus effect on the economy.

Harkinson said the crisis has also laid bare the problems with Japan's nuclear industry, including its history of cover ups, corner cutting, and cozy relations between the bureaucracy and the nuclear industry — just like we've seen in the US, he added.