As the debate over Japan’s reliance on nuclear power continues, some striking conclusions can be drawn from the country’s artistic tradition
Following the Fukushima incident, Japan recently closed down all its nuclear power generators for maintenance. The state now has to make a case for slowly reactivating them, with much opposition from the Japanese public. Conceptions of nuclear power have gradually evolved since its inception as a method for causing horrific atrocities and destruction, to its use as a supposedly “clean” source of energy.
It seems strange that nuclear energy, which was the subject of much controversy and campaigning only a few decades ago, is now held up as the perfect source of energy with no supposed side effects, and being more than capable of meeting our growing demand for energy.
But what’s missing from public debate on the issue is the question: What are these growing energy demands? Instead the debate centres around the costs and efficiency of nuclear power, as well as the potential risks and benefits which accompany it. However, there is an issue with the premise that we will continually need more energy forever, which intuitively seems like an impossible demand to meet.
Energy growth is not driven by the actual needs of people but by a capitalist system which does not regard the use of finite resources and the potential risks involved in extracting them, as anything other than costs towards production. After Fukushima, European countries were put under pressure to reduce their reliance on nuclear energy, and were met by threats from nuclear energy companies when they acquiesced to public demand. Furthermore, pursuing nuclear energy will not solve any of the social issues that accompany the “productisation” of energy, with the poor being priced out of the energy market and denied access to basic needs.
The insistence that our governments place on nuclear energy as the only viable “green” option is more about the inevitable exhaustion of oil supplies and the dependence on energy which is outside the state’s control. It is not an earnest call to take care of the environment, rather it represents the desire to control energy resources, with the potential risks to the environment still heavily debated and unverified.
Japan has suffered numerous disasters in recent history, man made and natural. In the past two years it has seen an ongoing recession, a tsunami and nuclear meltdown. The opposition to reactivation of the nuclear sites is more than well founded for a country which continuously experiences earthquakes and assaults from the sea. Yet this unease with nuclear power among the Japanese may have deeper historical and ideological roots. Recently, the British Museum held an exhibition and published a book on Hokusai’s Great Wave (featured image).
From the image we can see a world in flux. While the wave moves to the right of the image, smaller waves can be seen veering towards the left. The wave is shown towering over mount Fuji, which is considered sacred in the strands of Buddhism and Shinto which have developed in Japan. It threatens humanity, while at the same time, it is at one with the divine as the tentacles of the wave reach out and mingle with the snow-capped mountain. It is not unlike another painting by Hokusai which has the grasps of the waves merge into birds as seen below in his “Fuji from the Sea”:
The analogy of Hokusai’s Great Wave with regards to present day nuclear ambitions could not be more pertinent. Today nuclear energy is not just about producing energy, it is also about which country is powerful and which is in control. Nuclear power can never fully be isolated and distinguished as a means of energy production, rather than the potential for development of destructive weapons.
Those who have it rise to a new rank of super power. This, conceptually, is one reason why much hostility is involved when Iran pursues nuclear development to the distaste of the United States, despite any evidence that it is on course to develop weapons. The USA, worthy of the divine status as that of Fuji, can see no engulfing wave. Man and nature are not one, nature only exists for its resources and it may be used and wasted in the name of “growth” and capitalism.
Like the scene of the wave, our world is in a state of constant flux and uncertainty. The sociologist Charles Perrow, in his book Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies states: “Nuclear reactors are such inherently complex, tightly coupled systems that, in rare, emergency situations, cascading interactions will unfold very rapidly in such a way that human operators will be unable to predict and master them.” Thus, the risks will never really be overcome given that our understanding of the science as well as our environment is in a state of constant change.
At the moment nuclear power seems to be a convenient way to carry on living as we are, rather than a meaningful method of living with our environment. A “Hokusaist” however, would realise the need to understand our world with all its uncertainties and see ourselves, the environment and the “divine”, as one.
Image: The Great Wave by Hokusai
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