[Fresh Currents: Japan’s flow from a nuclear past to a renewable future can be downloaded for free and quickly here. It is also available from good bookstores, priced ¥2,000.]
“In short, Fresh Currents is more than a book: It is a piece of living history that crystallizes the threshold upon which we stand today.”
Japan Times book review by Chuo University Law Professor Stephen Hesse
“That’s the way everything was: Everything was written by somebody who didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, so it was a little bit wrong, always!”
Judging Books by Their Covers, in Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman!, Richard Feynman
Hop on the haunted house of horrors ride at the funfair, and the moment when you enter that parallel, fictive world of ghoulies and ghosties, and long-legged beasties, and things that go bump in the night comes when the trolley hurtles forward and the swing doors open to consume you; with Fresh Currents, that entry to a parallel world, one in which nuclear power is Evil and all renewables are Saintly, one where the emotional tail wags the rational dog, one tailor-made for the most acerbic put-down of psychologist Daniel Kahneman—“good technologies have few costs in the imaginary world in which we inhabit, bad technologies have no benefits, and all decisions are easy”—comes early on, in the introduction by editor Eric Johnston, where he doffs his hat to thank The Japan Times, “one of the world’s finest newspapers”, seemingly with nary a sliver of tongue in cheek. No disrespect to the toilers at the august organ, some of whom are fine writers and all of whom, I’m sure, are underpaid, but this sounds like an alternative punchline to the hoary expat one-liner, “You know you’ve been in Japan too long when…you start bowing on the telephone.” You really have been in Japan too long if you believe that The Japan Times, with its uber-pompous editorials, “Paraguay-Japan ties strong, getting stronger” propaganda guff, embarrassing Readers in Council letters to the editor page, and content largely filched from wire services and real newspapers around the globe, is one of the world’s finest newspapers.
Parochialism of this sort infests the book—not a literal, geographic parochialism, but a more insidious sort, one in which standards and expectations are diminished by isolation and an uncritical audience. Among the lows of the many lowlights are the following: a long, rambling essay by journalist David McNeil, Tohoku Damashii (“The soul of Tohoku”), much of which, irrelevant to the title on the tin of the book, is about the tsunami in general, an essay with academic pretentions but one in which footnotes come and go randomly, footnotes with suspiciously clustered dates that make it read like a cut-and-shut job pasted together from previously published material, a suspicion underscored by the appearance early in the course of the essay of a mysterious character named “Kai Watanabe”, of whom all we learn that her home is in Okuma and then, many pages on, that her parents have abandoned hope of going back to Okuma, an essay that threatens to flay the bark of the tree of the English language to within the sap of its life (“fickle weather and incessant taxation also produced periods of terrible famine”); a jejune travelogue, Fear & Loathing, Deception & Denial in Nuclear Cloud Cuckoo Land, (when the talk turns serious, people, can we ditch the spurious Hunter S. Thompson references, please) by “award-winning photographer and writer” John Ashburne, in which it is imperative for understanding in the last third of the piece that the reader knows where the action takes place, but is offered no clue, although in the superannuated tradition of New Journalism, we are told the time and date with exquisite precision (“at 6.30pm on the evening of 8th August, 2012, I wandered back into the dining room of my humble hotel”); a wholly disingenuous piece by Eric Johnston, Can Nuclear Power Help Fight Global Warming?, in which he—rightly—lays out what a formidable ramp-up of nuclear capacity would be needed to replace fossil-fuel power plants globally by 2050, but then conveniently fails to lay out the even more formidable challenges replacing them with wind, water, and sun pose; an ostensibly muckraking article wholly mistitled Fukushima Workers and the Yakuza, by freelance journalist Tomohiko Suzuki, in which only one paragraph in three pages even mentions organized crime; and The Promise of Alternative Energy, by “well-known landscape artist” Brian Williams (et al), who appear to think that Flying Electric Generators tethered from up in the troposphere to earth and harnessing the trade winds will solve the world’s energy problems sometime soon. Why not extract sunlight from cucumbers while we’re about it?
The relative highlights are hard to come by, but in a book this diverse there have to be a few: journalist Winifred Bird provides two, one on how to “grow your own energy” (although on efficiency grounds I don’t share her optimism on locally sourced and consumed energy) and one on energy efficiency (where she is bloodhound-right on the scent of waste). The other is from “political maverick” Taro Kono, on the inanities and impossibilities of the nuclear reprocessing cycle, who manages—just—to crack the only joke in an otherwise humorless tome.
But what really exercise me are the errors. If there were an Olympics of Error for books, Fresh Currents would sweep podium after podium and stand proudly at the top of the medal rankings. The humble bronze for error goes to the endless typos, solecisms, and other editorial foul-ups: we are told, for instance, that Japan’s hydro plants (good) generated 76.9GW in 2009, when we’ve been told two pages before that the installed nuclear (bad) capacity is 46.15GW. So hydro has twice the “power” of nukes! What’s wrong, you ask? Well, output is measured in MW h or GW h, not MW or GW, and hydro mustered only 76.9mn Mw h of output in 2009, versus c280mn MW h for nukes. Some fool confused gigawatts with megawatts/hour. Then there’s the map (on p131) that purports to show “54 municipalities that have from 5% to 100% of their electricity supply produced by renewable energy”—but even a colorblind and barely numerate dunce would be able to count out nearly 50 municipalities on Hokkaido alone.
But for Fresh Currents these are minor SNAFUs. Silver goes to the map that claims to show The Seismic Threat to Japan’s Nuclear Network (on p20-21), on whose two pages I laboriously counted at least 37 mistakes (and I don’t have access to all of the underlying data), ranging from the trivial (asterisked footnotes with no asterisk above them, for instance) to the laughable—how could *anyone* with pretentions to anti-nuclear authority get the names of two of Japan’s 17 nuclear power plants wrong?
Gold, the undisputed gold, though, goes to a chart (on p46) that purports to delineate the contemporary Connections between Media & The Nuclear Industry. It begins like this:
NHK [Japan’s BBC]
Management Issue Committee, Gaishi Hiraiwa
(is also President of Tokyo Electric Power Co., Inc.)
and then moves on to the most powerful private-sector TV station:
Owner of Yomiuri Newspaper, Matsutaro Shoriki
(is also Chairman of Japan Atomic Energy Commission)
“That’s odd,” I thought, “I don’t remember any Hiraiwa serving as president of Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) in recent years. What’s the source for this chart?” It turned out to be an URL, which turned out to be a BBS, Expat Café (“A home for displaced souls”). You can see the original post here. “Hmm,” I thought, “Should books with ambitions to stake a place in a serious debate stoop to sourcing material from unsourced posts on bulletin boards? And where did this chart come from originally?” A moment rootling around the Interwebs turns up the book that looks to be the source, Dangerous Talk by Takashi Hirose, published in…1987. But it gets worse, for even back in 1987 this was a *historical* chart, as while Gaishi Hiraiwa (1914-2007) served as chairman of TEPCO (the above “president” is a mistranslation on the part of the Fresh Currents folks) from 1984 to 1993, Matsutaro Shoriki (1885-1969) was chair of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission for less than a year, that year being…1956. If wrong were a star, this chart would be a red supergiant.
“Details, schmetails,” you might say, “Enough with the captious pedant shtick,” but I would beg to disagree. Errors on this scale pulverize to smithereens the relationship of trust that must exist between reader and writer in a fact-dependent non-fiction work on an issue, the future of energy, that has to be thought through and debated in as dispassionate and an informed way as possible.
Dejected, I came to doubt more intensely a couple of dubious passages I’d ringed elsewhere, and went back to check on them. The first was this, by Eric Johnson in Can Nuclear Power Help Fight Global Warming?:
Some may argue that nuclear power plants will be built by major greenhouse gas emitters like China, which can afford to construct massive nuclear plants. Yet wind power, not nuclear, is growing by leaps and bounds in China. Chinese authorities, for all their pronouncements, have a long way to go to actually constructing the hundreds of nuclear plants they claim are on the drawing board.
On closer inspection, that last assertion, about “hundreds of nuclear plants” being on the Chinese drawing board, is obviously hyperbole, and I suspect the author knows it—and knew it even as he was writing it. This is the very essence of bullshit, as beautifully delineated by philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt, in On Bullshit:
For the bullshitter, however, all these bets [on truth and falsehood] are off: he is neither on the side of the true or the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says.
Sourcing World Nuclear Association and China Electric Power News data, I find just 10 *new* nuclear plants under construction between 2010 and 2015 and eight more *new* ones planned for 2015-2020. Even at the reactor level, there are only 42 planned for 2015-2020. And what of this “long way” to construction? In spite of Fukushima, construction is proceeding much as planned (not that we should necessarily be rejoicing at that, but equally we shouldn’t let anti-nuclear hysteria blind us to what is actually happening). And is it wind, not nuclear, that’s growing by “leaps and bounds” in China? I resent having to get up off my fat arse (alright, stay on my fat arse) to research this, but I can tell you (not that you should be surprised), courtesy of the China Electricity Council, that what’s really growing in China is good old bronchitis-inducing coal, with 25.8GW of thermal capacity added in January-September 2012 versus 5.9GW for wind (down 10.6% on the year). Oh, and by the way, wind attracted RMB82.9bn in investment in 2011, down 7% on the year, only slightly more than nuclear, at RMB74.0bn, up 18%. What’s growing by leaps and bounds again?
The second was this, in Fear & Loathing, blah blah, about the still to be activated spent nuclear fuel reprocessing plant at Rokkasho:
Like all the nuclear installations on the [Shimokita] peninsula, the Rokkasho plant lost electrical power after last year’s quake—the entire grid north of the town of Miyagi is wired in series, just like the proverbial fairy lights—and was forced to run on back-up generators never intended for extended use, until power was restored on March 22, 11 harrowing days later.
Really? My recollection was that power was restored to almost all of northern Japan within three or four days. A little rootle, and what did I find? A press release here (J) from Rokkasho operator Japan Nuclear Fuels Limited (JNFL) stating that power was restored on March 13, at 22:22, two days and eight hours after the earthquake. Once, in my criminal lawyering days, I met two men in different London police stations who both claimed to be Jesus, and as I noted later over drinks, at least one of them had to be wrong. In this case, wrong is not, I suspect, with JNFL. [And where is this “town” of Miyagi? Last time I looked, it was a prefecture (although there once was a town called Miyagi, absorbed into Sendai in…1987).]
At this point, I consigned my printout of Fresh Currents to the sharp and unforgiving teeth of the shredder.
The second saddest thing about Fresh Currents is that it is a monumental exercise in what psychologists call “motivated reasoning”, in which, prey to a passion, you argue back from your conclusion and ignore any inconveniences that might get in the way; the single saddest thing about it is that there is ample room, nay even a desperate need, for a book, written by a person (or persons) with a background in the relevant disciplines of maths/physics, civil engineering, economics, and—dare I say—evolutionary psychology (backgrounds that none of the authors of Fresh Currents possess), that lays out how we might just, against all odds, painfully, with much sacrifice, and against all of our hard-wired instincts for laziness, get to a zero-carbon society in Japan and the world in 2050, a book that might look like this. Pompously inflated with falsely righteous and indignant hot air, Fresh Currents so sadly isn’t it.