Japan's Ongoing Decontamination Fraud

More than a year and a half since the nuclear crisis, much of Japan’s post-Fukushima cleanup remains primitive, slapdash and bereft of the cleanup methods lauded by government scientists as effective in removing harmful radioactive cesium from the environment.

“Even if a method works overseas, the soil in Japan is different, for example,” said Hidehiko Nishiyama, deputy director at the environment ministry, who is in charge of the Fukushima cleanup. “And if we have foreigners roaming around Fukushima, they might scare the old grandmas and granddads there.”

- Hiroko Tabuchi. “In Japan, A Painfully Slow Sweep.” The New York Times. January 7, 2013.

For the past year my fifteen-year-old son has been coping with the pressure of his last year of Japanese junior high school. This is the year when everyone’s fate narrows considerably. Students are tested continually and nudged toward the high schools considered to be the most suitable match for their standardized test scores. Education is mandatory only up to completion of junior high school, and the government has never built a free public secondary education system that can take in all students who want to attend. Instead, Japan allowed a complex system of government-subsidized private schools to meet the demand. The best alternative is usually the top-ranked public school within commuting distance, but entry is extremely competitive. Some public schools are middle ranking or lower. These are accessible to many students who are not high-scoring on tests, but many families opt to pay extra for private schools.
The ultimate goal for the children who aim for the top in this system is to enter the prestigious universities such as Keio, Waseda, University of Tokyo and University of Kyoto, and a few others. The political, business and bureaucratic elite is made up of graduates from these schools. The great mystery of this system is how this tribe of the supposed best and brightest could be so dumb and ethically bankrupt in their response to the radiological contamination of Fukushima prefecture, as well as in other matters of national leadership.
This month The Asahi Shinbun (this link contains links to Parts 1-3 of the report) broke an investigative story that finally blew the lid of the obvious fraud that has been called the “decontamination” of areas affected by the Fukushima catastrophe. The New York Times reported on the story a few days later.
Since the decontamination program began, thousands of citizens, bloggers and whistleblowers have decried the meaningless waste of money spent on the impossible task of undoing the contamination. It’s nice that a major media organization finally got around to making this a legitimate story.
The fraud is, or should be, an enormous scandal. $7.4 billion dollars was budgeted for decontamination and doled out to various firms that had dubious and varied levels of expertise in handling radioactive materials. Domestic and foreign companies with proven potential for real decontamination work were neglected in favor of politically connected construction companies who have done slapdash work. The work was done properly, for public relations displays, only around official monitoring posts. Elsewhere, soil, vegetation and water were just moved from one place to another. Permanent storage spaces, sealed off from the environment, were in most cases not sought because everyone involved knew there was no permanent solution. People doing the work were not properly protected. A spokesman for the contractors, quoted in the New York Times article, acknowledged that their methods were not as effective as those of the specialized companies, but they defended themselves by saying only their methods were cost-effective – which is another way of saying no one ever had any intention of paying for real decontamination work. When people complained to both the local and national levels of government, there was no follow up or enforcement of the stiff penalties that were legally possible.
Of course, the bureaucrats who dreamed up this plan are not stupid, as I sarcastically stated above. They know exactly what they are doing. They have to create a false perception of the catastrophe’s implications. They want to declare the evacuated territories safe and clean and put residents back onto their contaminated land. These people must be sacrificed for the sake of restoring the nation’s energy policy and the lies about the safety and necessity of nuclear energy. So while bureaucrats and politicians may not be stupid enough to sincerely believe that this decontamination is not ridiculous, they are evidence that Japan’s education system erodes the ethical sensibilities that emerge naturally in children, and that is not an easy achievement.
The problem is that intelligence and morality are not really independent of each other. Unethical policies are stupid because they erode faith in government and the will to solve problems collectively (see picture below). This country could literally cease to be if leaders don’t get over their preoccupations with hosting the 2020 Olympics, singing the national anthem and boosting defense spending in order to hold onto the Senkaku Islands.

An additional problem is that cynical, unethical motives require one to play dumb, and this must take a toll on one’s soul. For example, you have to put your country $7.4 billion further in debt for a plan that everyone can see will not succeed in its stated aims, and you have to pretend you can’t do calculations with these big numbers or put this spending in a sensible perspective with other potential uses of the money.
These days children in their early teens are forced to learn advanced math that earlier generations never saw until late secondary school, but somehow adult math literacy has been dumbed down by elite bureaucrats. There is no public understanding of what $7.4 billion means, and reporting on financial matters doesn’t contain simple calculations or comparisons that would help the public understand.
So here is some perspective. The new Chernobyl containment structure cost $0.768 billion, and this was an amount that the EU and the United States took a very long time to cough up. Even though the new structure was needed to prevent Europe from being exposed to a “second Chernobyl,” and it is a miniscule amount compared with what has been spent to rescue Greece from financial default, it was apparently a difficult matter to get the funding for it. On the other hand, the conservative, “fiscally responsible” government of Canada has had no problem spending $1.2 billion to clean up radioactive contamination in the small town of Port Hope – home to the Cameco nuclear fuel processing facility. This little problem in Canada hardly registers in the history of nuclear energy, but for some reason the money was available. So what’s a billion dollars? Obviously, not much these days. What matters are the values and ethical judgments we make in deciding how to spend a billion dollars.
If the brilliant elite graduates of the Japanese bureaucracy wanted to stop ignoring what are simple math questions but difficult ethical questions, they could easily calculate how much $7.4 billion would give to each of the 150,000 people who were forced by government order to evacuate from Fukushima:  

7,400,000,000 / 150,000 = 740,000 / 15 = $49,333

So let’s add a bit onto the national debt and round that up to $50,000. That’s $200,000 for a family of four, enough for them to go somewhere far away and start life over. It’s not justice, but it’s not a bad deal compared to the option of staying put. The alternative is to move back to a town which will not be decontaminated and never repopulated to its prior level. The well-known pattern of disaster zones is that those with skills and resources leave and never come back, while those who do come back inhabit a town that goes into inevitable decline. But the real goals of the decontamination project were never meant to help the people affected. As it was put by a resident quoted in The New York Times, “It’s clear the decontamination drive isn’t really about us anymore.” The evacuees are sacrifices for the bigger project of minimizing damage to the reputation of nuclear energy, which, like decontamination, will prove to have been a futile endeavor.

Other statistics on national spending and revenue in Japan (in YEN)

national debt
annual interest paid on national debt
annual revenue
recently announced 2013 budget
ratio of budget to revenue
decontamination project
recent addition to defense budget
annual interest % of annual revenue
decon. project % of annual revenue
decon. project % of annual interest

Data in the above table reported by Kyle Bass and The Japan Times

US$1 = 88 yen (2013/01/08) 

No comments:

Post a Comment