Deconstructing the Myths of Nuclear Energy

Deconstructing the Myths of Nuclear Energy
and Building a Pure Land without Nuclear or Military Presence

Hidehito Okochi

Rev. Okochi at his Juko-in Solar Temple

Rev. Hidehito Okochi was born in 1957 and studied political science in the Department of Law at Keio University. He is a Jodo Pure Land denomination priest and the abbot of Juko-in temple in Edogawa ward, Tokyo, where he helps run a variety of local NGOs focused on ecological living, community support, and activism in various social issues, such as the Palestine Children’s Campaign and the Citizens Network for Thinking about Global Warming. He is also one of the leaders of the Interfaith Forum for the Review of National Nuclear Policy.

When we Buddhists get involved in social movements, I believe the foundation of our engagement is the Four Noble Truths. The starting point is clear awareness of the real situation and empathy with those who are suffering; the second step is to look for the causes and mechanisms of this suffering in a logical and objective manner; thirdly, we look at the ways that we can bring about an end to this suffering and what sort of ideal society we want to achieve as a result; and finally, we take concrete effective action to achieve our vision.

1st Noble Truth: The Perspective of Those Victimized by the Three Poisons (kilesa)

My journey through these Four Noble Truths of the Buddha really began with my direct contact with people in other parts of Asia and the world. My first significant trip overseas was to Bhutan in 1987. Bhutan is, of course, famous as the birthplace of the concept of Gross National Happiness, coined by the former King of Bhutan Jigme Singye Wangchuck and based in Buddhist values. My experience in Bhutan started me questioning Japan’s values of emphasis on economic growth.

When I graduated university in 1980, the Indochina crisis of mass refugees from Vietnam and ongoing civil war in Cambodia led me to get involved in relief work in the region with other Buddhists. In 1988, after visiting the Cambodian refugee camps on the border of Thailand and also urban slums and rural villages in Thailand, I began a deeper questioning of the Japanese government’s Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) and the accompanied economic strategies being carried out by Japanese corporations in the region. Finally, in 1991 I got involved in the Israel-Palestine issue with the beginning of the Gulf War, and since then have had numerous opportunities to visit the occupied territories.

Through these experiences, I have been able to see the perspective of those who are suffering in these situations and have developed a deep distrust of the predominant, mainstream worldview and the American/United Nations-centric value system. As a Buddhist, I came to understand the insight of the Buddha that the world is ruled over by the three poisons (kilesa): from the greed of mainstream economic development and the mythology of Gross National Product (GNP) to the anger of the so-called War Against Terrorism to the delusion of nuclear energy and nuclear armaments. From these above experiences, I was able to see deeply that I, myself, was part of these forces. As Japanese citizens complicit with our government’s policies, I, and my community, are part of the cause of the structure of violence in the world.

In this way, I became convinced of the need for us to become self-sufficient in our own communities so as to not contribute to this global system of exploitation. As Buddhists, we must discern and transform these forces, which are obscured in cultural myths and structural violence. Then, we need to make a vision of a Pure Land built from facing the sufferings and problems of this world. Together with the peoples of other religions, we must look at the structures of violence and see how we are tied to them as we try to move forward in solidarity.

2nd Noble Truth: Cutting Through the Nuclear Mythology

The Myth of Necessity

These days, there is a growing interest in nuclear technology and its development in various parts of Asia as an answer to meet the rapid demand for energy in many of these growing economies. As Japan has already experienced this stage of rapid economic development and the consequent demand of energy, I would like to submit a serious warning to our fellow Asian peoples. This warning begins with the need to discern the various myths that a government and its vested interests will submit to their citizens. In Japan, this constellation of vested interests is called the “nuclear village”, which consists of government politicians and bureaucrats; corporate interests such as our giant electric companies, construction firms, and national banks; academics and scientific experts; and media bought off by these massive vested interests.

Beginning in the 1950s, as Japan entered its first period of post-war economic growth, these vested interests launched a major public campaign to convince the Japanese people that nuclear energy was necessary to support economic growth and to revive from the destruction of World War II. The Oil Shock of the early 1970s gave further fuel to the myth that without nuclear energy, Japan would not have enough electricity to maintain economic development and be too dependent on foreign sources of energy. However, the real story is not Japan’s lack of electricity, but it’s inefficient and wasteful use of electricity.

Since the early 1970s when Japan’s first nuclear reactors started to go on line, Japan’s total electrical generation has gone from around 400,000 GWh, upwards to 700,000 GWh in the late 1980s, and surging over 1 million GWh by the mid 1990s. While nuclear electrical generation expanded greatly over this period, Japan did not actually cut back on fossil fuel imports at all with oil, coal, and natural gas imports doubling between 1971 and 2005. In comparison, Germany’s electrical generation using fossil fuels has remained steady at around 350,000 GWh since the mid 1970s with overall generation increasing to 550,000 GWh by the late 1980s due to increased use of nuclear power. Over the past twenty years, Germany’s overall generation has increased only 100,000 GWh all due to increased use of clean energies.[1]

Further studies show that from 1965 to 1995 the gap between generated electricity that was used and that which was lost due to various system inefficiencies in Japan widened by 170%.[2] One of the important causes of this is the increased use of nuclear reactors. Because of the limits of the technology, nuclear reactors must operate at lower temperatures to ensure the safety of the nuclear fuel rods. This cuts their thermodynamic efficiency down to around 30%—some 10% lower than coal-fired plants, 20% lower than gas turbine plants, and 60% lower than hydropower stations.

Since the Fukushima incident, the Japanese government has continually appealed for the restart of nuclear reactors to avoid a lack of electricity during peak periods, especially in the middle of hot summer days. However, studies show that such an excess period only occurs from 2:00 to 3:00 p.m. on weekdays when the temperature is above 31 degrees Celsius, which on average comes to a total of 10 hours out of a total of 8,760 hours in the year. The real issue, therefore, is not the need for more electricity but much more efficient management of it; for example, changing the current pricing system that increases consumption rates for household use while decreasing rates for industrial use during these peak periods.

The other main issue behind the “myth of necessity” is the constellation of vested interests, “the nuclear village”, which has made electrical generation a very lucrative business of huge construction contracts, bank loans, and employment opportunities for businesses involved in the industry. Like speculative investment banking that makes money off of money and not off of productive business, nuclear energy in Japan has become about the financial gains of making endless amounts of electricity rather than meeting the real energy needs of a nation. It is no wonder then that other governments in Asia, with their own vested interests, are continuing to show a keen interest in importing Japanese nuclear technology and expertise as a way to meet their energy needs rather than figuring out more efficient uses of energy. This is the myth of necessity, a world of hungry ghosts in Buddhist cosmology who embody the kilesa of greed.

The Myth of Safety

The second myth that has been tied to the one of necessity since the beginning is the myth of the safety of nuclear energy. One of the first impetuses for promoting nuclear energy in Japan was the United States desire to share with its new ally nuclear technology and knowhow in the early days of the Cold War. In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower launched an official U.S. policy called “Atoms for Peace’’. In order to convince Japanese still recovering from the trauma of Hiroshima and Nagasaki of the benefits of nuclear power, the Japanese government needed support in “re-educating” the public on nuclear power. Matsutaro Shoriki became a central force in this process as the head of Japan’s largest newspaper the Yomiuri Shimbun. Shoriki was a renowned nationalist, once suspected as a Class A war criminal and with ties to the CIA. At the beginning of 1954, the Yomiuri launched an ongoing and enthusiastic pro-nuclear campaign with the headline “Finally, The Sun Has Been Captured”. By 1956, Shoriki had become the first head of the newly created Japan Atomic Energy Commission. This was the beginning of a wide number of political and legislative measures over the years that systematically ensconced nuclear energy within Japan’s development model.[3]

As with all myths, there lies the shadow side of reality and the hidden costs of the myth. In order to propagate a lie, one has to actually create further harm than what would happen if the truth is faced, even while proceeding with a dangerous line of action. This is evidenced in the way laborers in nuclear power plants have been exposed to radiation, yet the covering up of their suffering has caused even greater harm to them, their families, and a nation living in ignorance. Very few of the people who have suffered health problems or died from working in nuclear power plants in Japan have filed court cases for workers’ compensation. If they protest against the electric power companies, their families might be excluded or ostracized from the local community where so many other locals have become dependent on the jobs and economic benefits of the reactors. In the vast majority of such cases, the victim is handed 10-30 million yen in compensation money and asked to sign a paper stating they will never protest or demand workers’ compensation. If a worker dies of cancer or leukemia, doctors are bribed or coerced to report it as heart failure, even with young victims. Therefore, the actual situation does not emerge in statistics either; radioactivity does not become a verified reason for illness and death; and the myth of safety is perpetuated.

In the over forty year history of the power companies management of nuclear power, there have been less than twenty cases of workers at nuclear power plants filing cases in courts demanding compensation. One outstanding example is the case of Nobuyuki Shimahashi, a young man who died in 1991 of leukemia after working in the Hamaoka Nuclear Facility in Shizuoka Prefecture. The Hamaoka reactors were eventually shut down shortly after the Fukushima incident due to fears surrounding their location on a major earthquake fault. Many of the workers who do the most dangerous work in nuclear power plants are unskilled day laborers often recruited by the Japanese mafia, the Yakuza, and brought in by sub contracted labor firms. However, Shimahashi was a skilled laborer having gotten a job at the plant after graduating a technical school in nearby Kanagawa Prefecture. He took detailed notes on his work and the total amount of radiation that he had been exposed to in his eight years and ten months on the job—which came to a total of 50.63 millisieverts. The legal limit for exposure to workers is actually 100 millisieverts per year, so Shimahashi’s eight year exposure is still under this limit. Still, he died at the age of 29 after being exposed to radiation that would only be allowable over a fifty year period if the standard of 1 millisievert per year is applied as with common citizens. With the support of many good lawyers, Shimahashi’s parents were able to gain compensation for their son’s death—a “justice” that hundreds of thousands of disenfranchised laborers have not been able to gain.[4]

Beyond the safety of those who are paid to work in the plants is the safety of the local people who live around these plants. In the United States, it was found that from 1987 to 1998 after nuclear reactors were shut down, infant mortality rates in the area decreased, in some cases up to 15-20%.[5] The German government also released data in 2007 showing that the risk of children five years or younger getting leukemia while living within five kilometers of nuclear power plants is twice as high as those living beyond that distance.[6] Another interesting study was performed in Japan that showed the infant mortality rate declined steadily after World War II but that there was a sudden increase in perinatal death—death of the fetus before birth—around 1950 when the Soviet Union began performing nuclear weapons testing. This rate spiked again in 1965, a year after the Chinese began their own nuclear weapons testing—all of which created fallout in the atmosphere that drifted over Japan.

Even with such a variety of studies, the Japanese government has continually downplayed the dangers of the radiation. This situation has only gotten worse since the Fukushima incident, as the government has changed regulations on allowable exposure to radiation. The international standard for allowable exposure for common citizens to radiation is one millisievert/year. However, after Fukushima, the Japanese government increased this standard to 20 millisieverts/year, which includes children, who as the studies above show, are far more susceptible to its influence. They also changed the limit for workers from 100 to 250 millisieverts/year. The even more disturbing point is that these baseline international standards were created by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP)—both of which are promoters of nuclear energy. In this way, even these standards, which the Japanese government is far exceeding, are not ones that truly safeguard life but rather reflect a compromised level allowable in order to promote nuclear energy.

Indeed, the people of Fukushima are living in highly radioactive environments with a continual exposure in outdoor environments of 8-26 millisieverts/year, thus going well beyond the international annual standard. For children especially, this is an intolerable situation. In the age group of children under 18, the normal rate of thyroid cancer is one in one million. However, in only two years since the incident, we had 12 confirmed cases in Fukushima and 16 suspected in a population of only 170,000 people. Another six months later in August 2013, the number had jumped to 18 confirmed cancers and another 26 suspected. The Japanese government is trying to belittle this information saying that four to five years after the Chernobyl incident the increase in thyroid cancer for young people was only 1 in 10,000 and that it is not possible for such an outbreak of thyroid cancer in just one or two years after the Fukushima incident.

As I mentioned in the beginning, in order to continually propagate a lie, an even more damaging set of results will occur than if the problematic situation is faced honestly. The situation of the children of Fukushima continuing to live in highly radioactive environments as exposure standards are altered by authorities is the embodiment of this point—as well as the embodiment of the kilesa of delusion that is the myth of safety.

The Myth of Clean Energy and Global Warming

A third major myth surrounding nuclear energy—which has been introduced in the last decade or so—is that it is a “clean energy” which does not emit green house gases and is therefore the answer to the problematic use of fossil fuels which is driving global warming.

The first problem with this argument concerns the vast amounts of water nuclear power plants need during normal operation. According to a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) based in the United States,[7] nuclear reactors are usually located on bodies of water like rivers, lakes, or oceans. Vast amounts of water are needed to absorb the heat that is not able to be converted into electricity and also to cool the equipment and buildings used in generating that electricity. As I noted earlier, only 30% of the thermal energy generated by the reactor core is actually captured and sent out on the grid. The other 70% escapes out into the environment, usually as water that has been used to cool the heat created by the reactor core. This discharged water can be 17C/30F degrees higher than the temperature of the lake, river, or ocean. In nuclear plants located on the ocean, as is the case in Japan, the intake and discharge points for the water a plant uses are built one to two kilometers offshore. The amount of water that a single nuclear power plant will circulate and discharge through its system can be anywhere from 476,000 to 714,000 gallons per minute.

Further, it is commonly known that the water being discharged from nuclear plants often contains radioactivity, which is under legal limits as part of a regular waste cycle. UCS notes that, “When the water discharged from a nuclear power plant contains radioactivity, it is by design and not by accident”—except in accidents like Fukushima when this system becomes easily prone to the release of massive amounts of highly radioactive water. Even governments and groups that promote nuclear power admit to the problematic effects of the mass circulation of warmed and often radioactive water on marine life during the normal functioning of a reactor. The World Nuclear Association, in their report on cooling nuclear power plants, speaks of “the change in ecosystem conditions brought about by the increase in temperature of the discharge water.”[8] This discussion does not even touch on the vast amounts of fossil fuel energy that the many inactive nuclear power plants—such as the 52 of 54 in Japan—require just to maintain a basic cooling system to keep their nuclear cores from overheating and melting down; nor the fossil fuels required to ship spent nuclear fuel for reprocessing or disposal often across the world; nor the fossil fuels needed for and environmental impact created from uranium mining.

These and many other concerns have led UCS to issue a position paper on “Nuclear Power and Global Warming” stating in part:

Nuclear power is not the silver bullet for “solving” the global warming problem. Many other technologies will be needed to address global warming even if a major expansion of nuclear power were to occur. Prudence dictates that we develop as many options to reduce global warming emissions as possible, and begin by deploying those that achieve the largest reductions most quickly and with the lowest costs and risk. Nuclear power today does not meet these criteria.

Indeed, the amount of precious resources we are wasting to build nuclear power plants while ignoring the development of sustainable clean energies raises major questions on how much nuclear energy is a viable replacement to fossil fuels. It is said that the cost of nuclear power to generate electricity in large quantities is low, on average 5.5/kwh as compared to 10.75 for hydroelectric, 13.65 for oil, 11.5 for wind, and 49 for solar.[9] This calculation is the embodiment of myth since it does not account for the amount of money spent on subsidies to local communities to host the reactors—such as the 20 billion yen in 2012 alone to ten small towns in the Nuclear Ginza of Fukui[10]—nor the transport, management, and eventual disposal of the waste. It of course also does not calculate compensation not paid for workers fallen ill from extended exposure in the plants, nor the costs of decommissioning old or damaged reactors—$2.6 billion for Japan Atomic Power’s three reactors[11]. Finally, it does not factor in the potential cost of accidents, which besides Fukushima have been numerous in Japan and have been paid by the taxpayers—a May 2012 government bailout of TEPCO came to 1 trillion/$12.42 billion.[12] Looking at this issue of hidden costs, we can begin to appreciate how many resources are spent and wasted in the continued development of nuclear energy.

For myself, this journey into the suffering of others led to a deep self-examination as well as examination of my own country. From this examination and a reflection on my own Buddhist values, the choice of a human centered society rather than an industrial centered one became clear to me. I found that the Buddha’s teachings of the Four Noble Truths is an organic process, which if practiced properly leads from the experience of suffering to critical reflection and then naturally to an embrace of the value of human relationship and sentient life.

3rd & 4th Noble Truths: A Pure Land without Nuclear or Military Presence

Combating the cultural myths and structural violence of nuclear energy as outlined above is a tremendously daunting task. Many people today around the world, and in Japan as well, are doing their best to recycle, buy environmentally friendly products, and create social change through lifestyle change. Unfortunately, as we have seen in the production and consumption of energy in Japan, individual household electrical consumption plays a minor role in the overall consumption of energy in Japan—where just 50 large factories account for 25% of Japan’s CO2 emissions. In this way, more than personal lifestyle change is needed. Political activism is extremely important to make an actual impact on these structures.

In this way, I have been working to mobilize Japanese religious professionals through the Interfaith Form for the Review of National Nuclear Policy begun in 1993. Japanese religious denominations, especially Buddhist ones, have a long history of political complicity. However, it is the role of religions to speak about moral and ethical matters based on our shared concern for humanity and all sentient life. Therefore, we, religious professionals, have a major role to play in speaking out on the ethical problems of nuclear energy. Unfortunately, Japanese in general, and sadly our young generations, are politically very passive and hesitant to call out our government and other national institutions when they behave irresponsibly.

In this way, education and conscientization on the realities of these issues is an extremely important role that religious professionals can play—especially since we are supposed to embody the virtues of wisdom and compassion. I have been working with members in my community to raise awareness of a number of larger global problems and how we Japanese are connected to them. For example, our Edogawa Citizen’s Network for Thinking about Global Warming (ECNG) first began raising awareness in the late 1990s in our community about Japan’s role in accelerating global warming through high levels of consumption. As a member of the Palestine Children’s Campaign, I have also been trying to educate my community on Japan’s responsibility for problems in the Middle East through its close military cooperation with the United States. Our support for an indigenous Japanese peoples’ (Ainu) advocacy group and an alternative energy and culture NGO supporting the tribal peoples of northern India, called Julay Ladakh, is also exposing my community to the struggles of marginalized peoples elsewhere in the world.

From this awareness building, a vision of a better world has been able to form—one without discrimination and exploitation and without nuclear and military presence. Rejecting these institutionalized forms of kilesa, we embrace sentient life and ecology for a Buddhist vision of a Pure Land in this world and in this life. We believe that a society built upon sustainable clean energy should reverse the social hierarchy—from a top down pyramid of vested interests like the Japanese “nuclear village” to a society of people working for their own self development as well as community development, which develops a creative power to share with others in a vast network.

jukoinIn the late 1990s, ECNG began to create an environmental development scheme that involved installing solar panels on the roof of one of my temples. Our vision was not to make the temple the center of electrical generation that would control and disseminate energy to the community. Rather, my temple has been acting as a model for individual household energy generation and consumption—that is, cyclical energy independence on the lowest scale possible. Through the fundraising campaign to install these panels, we launched a community micro credit bank called the “Future Bank”. This bank began supporting community members to purchase new, energy efficient appliances—a cost efficiency factor we found to exceed the investment in installing solar panels.

These projects helped us to expand our vision and link to other community based energy generation and consumption groups using a variety of technologies, such as micro hydroelectric, solar, wind, and geothermal. We have also begun supporting local reforestation initiatives in rural areas, which are shifting away from destructive monoculture plantations to sustainably harvested hardwoods. This initiative is done in consultation with traditional architects and builders to help revive their livelihoods and to build non-chemical and long lasting houses in both rural and urban areas. Two years ago, I completed the reconstruction of a second temple in Tokyo at which I am abbot, devoting a large portion of the new structure to low cost, chemical free apartments for urban dwellers.

As just one priest and just one community, we have done our best to practice these rather small-scale activities. However small, we have showed some examples of ways to an alternative society that is not dependent on big capital or vested power. Through this work, we have also met many new people and comrades both within Japan and overseas who are working for a natural energy society in which the practice of each citizen determines the world and the future. There is still so much work to be done, but I feel that the practice of the Four Noble Truths can provide us with a deep insight into the systemic problems we face while leading us on a practical path of engagement.

published November, 2013; base translation: Tom Eskildsen; final translation and editing: Jonathan S. Watts, based on a public talk given at the 2nd INEB East Asia Forum, South Korea, June 27-28, 2013

[1] Electricity Generation by Fuel. International Energy Agency (IEA). 2011. and

[2] “Supply and Demand of Energy in Japan”. Citizen’s Nuclear Information Center (Japan).

[3] Eric Johnston. “From Hiroshima to Fukushima: The History of Nuclear Power Development in Japan”. In Fresh Currents: Japan’s Flow from a Nuclear Past to a Renewable Future. Eric Johnston, Ed. (Kyoto: Heian-kyo Media, 2012). pp 16-18.

[4] “Nuclear plant workers developed cancer despite lower radiation exposure than legal limit”. Mainichi Shimbun newspaper. July 27, 2011. Also see the documentary “Nuclear Ginza” by Channel 4 in the United Kingdom, 1995.

[5] Mangano, J.J. “Improvements in local infant health after nuclear power reactor closing.” Environmental Epidemiology and Toxicology. 2000; 2:32-36.

[6] Nussbaum, Rudi H. “Childhood Leukemia and Cancers Near German Nuclear Reactors: Significance, Context, and Ramifications of Recent Studies.” International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health. 2009;15:318–323.

[9] “Electric Power Cost/Utilization Rates of Renewable Energy Sources”. Energy in Japan: 2010. Agency for Natural Resources and Energy.

[10] Mainichi Shimbun newspaper, March 29th, 2012.

[11] Due to a variety of problems and mismanagement, Japan Atomic Power may be forced to decommission these reactors, which would lead it into bankruptcy. “Japan Atomic Power to Seek Restart at All Reactors.” Asahi Shimbun newspaper. July 12, 2013.

[12] “Tepco Gets Bailout, but Cedes Power”. Wall Street Journal. April 27, 2012.

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