“I’M a Japanese woman from Kyoto,” last night’s surprise email began.
“About 30 years ago, when I was on a train from Kyoto to Nara, I met two Australians that were seated near me. Aren’t you that Greg Ray whom I met?” the writer asked.
Aogi Yoshizawa was now living in Asti, Italy, where she had read – on the internet – an article I’d written about Newcastle yachtsman Ivan Macfadyen and his sombre experiences on a recent voyage across the North Pacific.
One of the many points of interest about Macfadyen’s story was that, when he arrived in Hawaii, an academic asked him to join a group of racing yachtsmen surveying marine pollution. In particular, the yachtsmen were asked to help monitor plumes of radiation from Japan’s stricken Fukushima nuclear reactors.
My ears pricked up at this, and I bought a copy of Japan-based Australian journalist Mark Willacy’s book, Fukushima, hoping it would help me cut through some of the myths and lies about the nuclear accident. It did that, and more, alerting me to much wider issues in Japan’s nuclear industry.
Willacy criticised Japan’s “nuclear village”, a club of politicians, scientists, journalists and business people who tightly control information about the atomic energy industry in Japan. Journalists and others who dare to disagree with the village-approved line risk being ostracised and ridiculed, Willacy wrote.
So I sought books by Japanese writers from outside “the village”, and found Fukushima Meltdown, by Takashi Hirose.
Even allowing for the possibility of a certain amount of overstatement – Hirose’s book is rather emotional behind its facts and figures – the descriptions of Japan’s 50-plus nuclear power plants make scary reading. Hirose itemises their locations relative to geological faults and volcanoes, their various levels of preparation for predictable disasters and their histories of accidents and problems.
In addition to the “normal” nuclear power plants (off-line since the Fukushima melt-downs), Japan also has a fast-breeder reactor with a terrible accident history, some reactors that use deadly plutonium as well as uranium for fuel and the Rokkasho Village nuclear fuel reprocessing facility.
According to Hirose, this plant contains about 2827 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel. It’s almost full, but hasn’t been able to operate because of technical failures.
So, the quake-ridden archipelago of Japan is home to all these reactors and other facilities. Many are at or past their design lifetimes.
Many were built before anybody officially realised how close they were to major geological faults and there are question marks over their capacity to withstand big tremors.
Nobody seems sure where they will put all the waste, which must be kept cool. Already there have been close calls with the power supplies needed to achieve this.
If you want to find out more, my Japanese-Italian correspondent suggests you hurry up and get the information while you can.
She warns that the Japanese government wants to rush through (tomorrow) new laws to “protect special secrets”. Such secrets aren’t defined, hardly anybody got a chance to comment on the proposed laws and the laws threaten punishment for anybody who tries to find out about “protected secrets”.
“I think every day about my country and its problems, especially those on Fukushima,” Aogi wrote in her email to me.
“We don’t have democracy in Japan and our public TV doesn’t report about this terrible law. We’d really need that people in other countries criticise the way our government is behaving ... You can’t imagine the number of lies they told every day since March 2011.”
Ordinarily I might not think acceding to this out-of-the-blue request from a person I briefly met on a train 30 years ago was part of my job.
But if Hirose and others like him outside of the ‘‘nuclear village’’ are right in their warnings, then we in other countries will need more information, not less, as Japan debates putting its reactors back online.