Thursday, July 3, 2014

On the Political Power of Nuclear Power: Japan's Radioactive Plutocracy

Reversing his campaign pledge to reduce Japan’s reliance on nuclear power even as he had just been elected as prime minister of Japan in 2012 (Tepco’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear-power plant meltdown having occurred in 2011), Shinzo Abe announced that he would have more nuclear reactors built in Japan. “They will be completely different from those at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant,” he said in a television interview.[1] Adding a silver lining on to a rather gray, radioactive cloud, he said, “With public understanding, we will be building anew.”[2] This change in policy is dramatic, for the previous government, that of Yoshihiko Noda, had sought to phase out nuclear power in Japan by 2040. In fact, Abe’s own party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), had in its platform the goal “to establish an economy and society that does not need to rely on nuclear power.”[3] That the shift took place within the LDP suggests a shift in its power-dynamics, with the pro-nuclear sub-faction astonishingly having gained the upper hand over its rival while memories of the tsunami-triggered meltdown were undoubtedly still fresh.

                Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. (Image  Source: Itsuo Inouye)
It is perhaps no accident that Japan’s biggest business lobby, the Keidanren, was publicly lobbying for the government to restart the closed nuclear reactors in Japan. One might add to the mix the political influence of TEPCO, the company that owned and ran the dangerous Fukushima Daiichi reactors. Abe’s abrupt turn-about constitute a rarely visible sign of the actual political influence that large business lobbies weld even over prime ministers.

Moreover, the case suggests that powerful private interests can indeed be at odds with the public good—even when that constitutes the very survival of a people. Because private interests are likely to have tunnel vision relative to a view of the whole without such a rigorous gravity of their own interests, a plutocracy—rulership, either de facto or de jure, by wealth—is apt to be purblind in steering the ship of state ahead. When rocks lurk just below the water’s surface or icebergs silently stand by in the dark of night, a course taken incrementally and in the interest of just one part of the ship is apt to be purblind. To continue in this way not long after icebergs have been sighted and the ship has been hit borders on the insane; at the very least, the tacit acquiescence by the rest of society to let a powerful sector dictate to a government constitutes a reckless enabling not unlike someone who gives car keys to someone who is drunk and caused an accident just the year before (and is still intending to drink and drive!).

The larger problem lies in assessing whether democracies tend to degenerate not into mob rule as Plato and Aristotle had thought, but, rather, to being ruled by a few wealthy private interests that have figured out how to convert their huge stock of capital into political muscle. It is no accident, for example, that by 2014 the big American banks that were considered too big to fail in 2008 had 30 percent more in assets, and U.S. Government officials had absolutely no intent to break up those mammoth banks. Even if a causal relationship cannot be established, a restorative remedy may be elusive and extremely difficult to implement, practically speaking.

[1] Hiroko Tabuchi, “Japan’s New Leader Endorses Nuclear Plants,” The New York Times, December 30, 2012.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.