Fukushima and the Specter of Nuclear Power in South Asia

Harsha Navaratne

Harsha Navaratne on the step of Senrin-ji Temple in Da-te City, about 55 kms from the Fukushima #1 Nuclear Complex
Harsha Navaratne on the step of Senrin-ji Temple in Da-te City, about 55 kms from the Fukushima #1 Nuclear Complex

Harsha Kumara Navaratne is the Chairperson of Sewalanka Foundation, a leading Sri Lankan development NGO. Before founding Sewalanka in 1992, he worked for 21 years as Field Director and Vice President in the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement under the mentorship of Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne. He also served as Presidential Advisor to President Premadasa’s Janasaviya Poverty Alleviation Program and the 15,000 Village Development Program begun in 1989. At present, he is serving as the Chairman of Executive Board of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) and working with religious leaders in all parts of Sri Lanka to bridge the divides created by decades of civil war.

Deep Listening & Deep Impressions from the Voices of Fukushima

“Mothers come to me, almost every day, asking what they can do for their children…They tell me about the doctors they have seen and the hospitals they have visited…but still there is no clear answer for their children…As a Buddhist priest, I am talking to them and helping them to overcome their suffering by listening and sharing their pain.”

The Buddhist priest speaking to us was Rev. Michinori Sasaki, the vice-abbot of Shingyo-ji, a traditional Jodo Shin Pure Land Japanese temple in the town of Nihonmatsu, 50 kilometers from Fukushima. His voice was soft, and he paused for a few minutes after every sentence. Our entire group was listening intently, hardly taking a breath. Later, back in the van, as we traveled to the next temple, everyone was quiet and deep in thought. I was filled with sadness but also a firm conviction that it had been the right decision to visit Fukushima.

Even outsiders like us felt the loss. As we traveled from Tokyo, we went from the urban expressways to small, winding roads. The landscape has the lushness of our tropical rainforests in Sri Lanka. There were small mountains and streams flowing past forests, fruit orchards, paddy fields, and beautiful old villages with traditional houses and temples. All of these have become like ghost towns. There were no people to be seen. We didn’t even see birds as we traveled.

We first visited a town called Sukagawa, some 60 kilometers from the nuclear complex, and met Ms. Katsuko Arima who runs a natural food restaurant. She is a mother with three daughters. After the disaster, her family stayed in a temporary shelter, but she decided to return to her home and her restaurant, where she is now actively trying to rebuild her community.

With a voice full of conviction, she told us, “I am worried about my children’s future, but this is my home. It belongs to us. We have to bring normalcy back to our families and our communities. I have gone to Tokyo and participated in the anti-nuclear protests. I hope our country’s policy makers heard our voices. Do not repeat this mistake. Give our children a safe future.”

Questioning the Development Paradigm & the Role Model of Japan

When we started planning the 2012 Executive Board Meeting for the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB), the Japanese INEB board members agreed to be the host country, and Rev. Masazumi Okano offered to his temple as the meeting site. Then they recommended that we organize study visits before the meeting to learn more about Buddhism in Japan and to see the work being done by engaged Buddhist priests. I chose to join the study tour to Fukushima without much prior thought. I had been concerned about the disaster when it happened, of course, but it wasn’t until I listened to Rev. Sasaki in Nihonmatsu speak that it fully hit me emotionally.

As a development worker in my own country, after thirty years of war and a devastating tsunami, I have heard stories like this from different people. I have heard the stories of people who lost their loved ones; people who had all of their belongings destroyed; people who had nowhere to go and nobody to help them; people who felt they had no future people with no hope.

Still, I never imagined that I would hear those stories in Japan. Japan has always been the dream country for other Asian nations. It is held up as the role model for economic development. I never expected to hear such stories of pain, loss, fear, helplessness, and sadness. I never expected to hear about disenfranchised people and inactive policy makers.

Industrialization, economic liberalization, efficient management systems, maximization of gross national product—these were supposed to be the secrets of Japan’s development. These were the policies for economic growth that we “less developed countries” were supposed to learn and teach to the next generation. There were several people in our INEB delegation from South and Southeast Asia, and we were all questioning how this became possible in Japan.

Based on what we learned in our classrooms, what we read in the newspapers and literature, and what we watched in films and documentaries, Japanese society was supposed to be the most modern, the best organized, and the most disciplined and efficient.  How did this happen in a “developed” country? How did this disaster give them such a shock?  Why is the recovery process not reaching all people?

It seems now that people in the areas not directly affected by the nuclear incident are still struggling to recover from the devastation of the tsunami and the earthquake. I have been told that the national and local governments have not been effective in helping the people both materially and mentally. Japan’s highly centralized political and bureaucratic system does not allow flexibility or unprecedented initiatives in some areas of social life that would allow for a more speedy reconstruction.

This situation is further magnified in Fukushima where government inaction and negligence concerning the nuclear incident has made things that much worse. People who were living in the restricted area within 30 kilometers from the reactor have lost all hope of returning home. Many communities are still displaced. In some areas, people are allowed to return during the day, but they cannot stay overnight or sleep in their own homes. The whole social fabric has been disrupted.

Will We Ever Learn? Nuclear Energy in South Asia

Our group was made up of civil society activists and socially engaged Buddhists, and we were looking for answers. What lessons can we learn from this disaster?

More than 25 years ago, the Chernobyl disaster taught us the danger of nuclear power generation. We know from modern research, ancient teachings, and our experience that everything is interconnected and interdependent so that one side of the planet can never be safe if people on the other side are doing things that are short-sighted and potentially disastrous. Yet with all of our resources, information, knowledge, and technology, we continue to choose unsustainable paths.

After Chernobyl, scientists and politicians told us that new plants had additional safety measures in place and that this type of nuclear disaster would never be repeated. They said nuclear energy was a fully safe and an environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuels. Now the argument is being made against environmentalists at conferences like the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) that there is radiation all over the world, so the dangers of nuclear radiation are minimal. On the request of an Indian government official, I have met scientists who have told me that radiation levels in Mumbai are the same as some places within 40 kms of Fukushima. In this way, the fact that there are people still living in these regions in Fukushima is being used by other governments to support their scientific arguments about radiation.

In major capitals around the world the biggest argument going on is that if you abandon nuclear power, then your fossil fuel use will increase. A representative from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) came to Sri Lanka for a meeting on energy, and he spoke of how much fossil fuel use has increased in Japan since the 54 nuclear reactors have been turned off. It is true that many countries are facing real energy challenges. Countries like Sri Lanka have tapped all available options for hydro power. In India, the economy is booming, but poverty is a real threat to stability and democracy. The Indian government has to find urgent answers, and despite the availability of safer, sustainable alternatives, priority is being given to nuclear power.

The answer to this situation is what our fellow INEB member, Rev. Hidehito Okochi, has been promoting, which is to abandon these huge national electrical grids and use more localized systems of energy generation and consumption. When this idea is brought up, these official people in the big capitals complain about the investment costs of building up such local systems and how solar energy has largely failed.

However, I feel that Fukushima has delivered a clear and final verdict on this matter. Nuclear energy is not safe. We cannot predict or control all of the potential disasters. There is no long-term solution. We must close existing plants and find a way out. As normal citizens, we got this message. The common masses have heard this lesson, but have the policy makers heard it? It doesn’t seem like they have. There are still many countries with reactors near population centers and important ecological habitats. They are not taking steps to close existing reactors, and they are still planning new ones. The advocates say that it is a superior technology, an alternative to fossil fuels, and the best option for rapid economic growth, because they can quickly scale up production.

In this kind of environment, construction started on the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Complex in 2001. The site is at the southern tip of India in Tamil Nadu, and any disaster would almost certainly affect my home country, Sri Lanka. Despite this proximity, the Indian authorities have not sought any input or participation from their southern neighbor, nor have they sought input from their own people. In response, we organized a protest of 10,000 people in Sri Lanka against this situation. There are more than one million people living in a 30 km radius of the plant, and local people, fearing a Fukushima-like disaster, have organized a People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy. According to S.P. Udayakumar, one of its representatives, “The nuclear plant is unsafe. No public hearing was held. It’s an authoritarian project that has been imposed on the people.” The protestors have filed a public interest litigation in the Indian Supreme Court requesting that all proposed nuclear plants be stopped until satisfactory assessments are completed by independent agencies.

Indian officials have responded that the Kudankulam plant cannot be compared to Fukushima and that the fears of the people are not based on scientific principles. They argue that they are not in a tsunami prone area; that the plants in Kudankulam have a double containment system that can withstand high pressure; and that since at least 140 billion Indian rupees (approximately US$2.5 billion) has been spent, it will affect the economic stability of the country if they don’t operate the plant immediately.

Many articles have been written comparing Chernobyl and Fukushima in which scientists assert that the fallout from Fukushima was much better contained, because the plants were constructed with superior American technology. There was an article published in a major Sri Lankan newspaper from an Indian newspaper interviewing one of the fifty Japanese workers in the Fukushima nuclear complex at the time of the incident. It was reported that he has now returned home and is in totally normal in health. In this way, it was very interesting and important for me to learn of the real situation on the ground in Fukushima, which contradicts all this propaganda.

One of the nuclear scientific advisers to the Government of India, Rajagopala Chidambaram, has said, “We have learnt lessons from the Fukushima nuclear accident, particularly on the post-shutdown cooling system.” He added that the Fukushima nuclear accident should not deter or inhibit India from pursuing a safe civil nuclear program. However, after Chernobyl, they told us they had learned a lesson and that this kind of nuclear disaster would not be possible in the future. As the saying goes, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

What I learned from Fukushima is that we, as responsible citizens, cannot keep quiet. Nuclear disasters and nuclear waste affect people across borders and across generations. We cannot leave this decision in the hands of a few short-sighted government officials, who are driven by personal financial concerns and short-term economic gain. It is my personal experience that the larger the project is, the harder it is to stop. It builds its own vested interests and inertia. Social and environmental impact and sustainability are ignored.

Even if our leaders are democratically elected, they are not representing our values or our best interests on this issue. The general public needs to be directly involved in the debates and decisions on such major decisions that can affect our lives today and impact generations to come. We need to speak up, mobilize, and act to see that there is an end to this nuclear mess.

In an opinion piece in the New York Times on January 14, 2013, Ward Wilson— a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and the author of Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons— wrote, “Nuclear weapons were born out of fear, nurtured in fear, and sustained by fear. They are dinosaurs—an evolutionary dead end … Nuclear weapons—extremely dangerous and not very useful—are the wave of the past.”

All of the courageous people in Fukushima are trying to tell us the same thing about nuclear energy. Nuclear power is extremely dangerous and not very useful. Nuclear power is an evolutionary dead end. Even if it is not the easiest option in the short-term, we need to demand that our elected officials invest in the growing number of energy alternatives that are truly safe and sustainable.

The Role of Buddhism in Facing Nuclear Energy

The visit to Fukushima not only taught me a lesson about nuclear power, it also taught me a lesson about the future of Buddhism in Japan. We were inspired by the people we met and the stories we heard over the two days we spent in the Fukushima area. We were inspired by their commitment to rebuild their communities.

At the last temple we visited, Dokei-ji, a Soto Zen temple inside the restricted area, the young abbot, Rev. Toku-un Tanaka, gave us a tour. In one area, we saw ancient stone stupas of local rulers that had fallen and were scattered. It looked like a group of elephants had had a fight and left a mess, but it was all caused by the earthquake. Rev. Tanaka told us that when the earthquake hit, he moved his family to a safe place in another prefecture, and then he immediately returned to help other affected families. He spent many nights sleeping in a car and went for weeks without seeing his own family. He is hoping more people will return so they can fully rebuild the community.

Before the visit, we had heard that Japanese Buddhism was in decline and that the priests were active only in the funeral service business—but that was not what we saw. For people who are searching for best practices, the Buddhist priests who are working in Fukushima provide a wonderful example. They have brought people back to the temple by being socially engaged, by connecting with people, and by supporting them when they are in need. The best way to bring people back to the temple is to go out of the temple and connect with people where they are, as the Buddha himself famously proclaimed:

Charatha Bhikkhave carikam bhujana hitaya bahujana sukhaya.

Go forth O monks for the happiness and well being of the many

published November 2013

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