The key issue in solving the problem of the many local governments that have proved reluctant to accept rubble from areas devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake will be whether or not "science-based politics" can succeed.
In other words, we need to have scientifically defined radiation standards based on a consideration of citizens’ safety, and that the citizens themselves will trust. Realizing this goal is the role of politics. If the safety standards fail to earn citizens’ trust, then their value will fall and people will fear anything with even a trace of radiation.
We can interpret the refusal to accept rubble from the disaster zone as precisely this sort of reaction. It is based on relentless uncertainty that is caused by a lack of trust in politics. The first thing that led to this was the process of deciding radiation standards for incinerated ash used for landfills to guarantee safety in disposing of debris. The Environment Ministry accepted, without question, the opinion released by the Nuclear Safety Commission last June.
The government ministries and agencies serve the people in different ways based on their own perspective. It is conceivable that the Nuclear Safety Commission, which favors the views of the industry ministry, would put out standards meant to promote nuclear power generation. But the Environment Ministry, which is supposed to keep the environment safe, should stand on the side of citizens, reject these standards and press for more stringent ones. Then, as a result there would be a tug-of-war to adjust the standards by raising or lowering them. For politics to function, there must be two opposing teams that play a game against each other.
Why do they not oppose each other? The government and all its ministries and agencies are trying to effect an efficient recovery from the destruction wrought by the disaster, so instead of engaging in politics the government is simply behaving like an administrator. Administration runs more smoothly when there is no conflict. But the resulting message that citizens receive is that nobody is thinking about them. It leads to distrust with an underlying sense of hopelessness.
For example, why is the environment minister also serving as the minister in charge of the nuclear accident? Can one person serve the two roles of trying to quickly clean up after the accident while also trying to protect the people? It is odd that nobody finds this strange.
Residents who oppose having the rubble disposed in their areas say they are helping out in other ways, such as volunteering. This is not a problem of local self-interest. The problem lies in a nagging fear that accepting rubble will become an irreversible decision. We should consider the citizens' response to the government approach, which prioritizes efficiency while failing to recognize the people's unease, as boycotts and resistance done in the name of self-defense.
Even so, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda says the government will provide subsidies to local governments that accept rubble. But this policy is the same as the one used to let communities accept nuclear plants by providing the middle class with financial benefits to gain their support while isolating the opponents from the communities. Pork barrel policies only increase people's distrust of politicians.
To regain trust, the government needs to rebrand the Environment Ministry in the eyes of citizens and revive it as an institution that sticks to the principle of keeping the people safe. The first step toward accomplishing this is for the environment minister to stop serving two roles. The government should also make it a top priority to restore trust in safety standards by conducting new scientific demonstration tests based on public, democratic processes.
(This article was compiled from an interview by Harufumi Mori, staff writer of The Asahi Shimbun.)
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Norihiro Kato is a literary critic and a professor at Waseda University. He conducted research in Minami-Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, after the Great East Japan Earthquake. His publications include "3/11: Shinigami ni Tsukitobasareru" (3/11: tossed aside by the god of death).
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