The Empire at Dusk

American pundits decry the onset of sharp defense cuts, but the Pentagon can’t even account for $1 trillion in its own spending. Isn't it time to rein in the beast?

In its scramble to avoid another legislative gang war over the nation's debt ceiling, Washington is preparing to shake down the Defense Department in the name of deficit reduction. While budget cutters preoccupy themselves with line-item expenditures, they overlook the Pentagon's biggest cost center: empire. The burden of global hegemony, the commitment to project force across every strategic waterway, air corridor, and land bridge, has exhausted the U.S. military and will be even harder to sustain as budget cuts force strategists and logisticians to do more with less. A national discussion about the logic of maintaining huge forward bases, to say nothing of their financial and human costs, is long overdue.

American relations with the world, and increasingly America's security policy at home, have become thoroughly and all but irreparably militarized. The culprits are not the nation's military leaders, though they can be aggressive and cunning interagency operators, but civilian elites who have seen to it that the nation is engaged in a self-perpetuating cycle of low-grade conflict. They have been hiding in plain sight, hyping threats and exaggerating the capabilities and resources of adversaries. They have convinced a plurality of citizens that their best guarantee of security is not peace but war, and they did so with the help of a supine or complicit Congress. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. presidents have ordered troops into battle 22 times, compared with 14 times during the Cold War. Not once did they appeal to lawmakers for a declaration of war.

The legacy of American militarism is a national security complex that thrives on fraud, falsehood, and deception. In the 1950s, Americans were told the Soviets had not only the means to destroy the United States but the desire to do so. In reality, Moscow lacked the former and so gave little thought to the latter, while Washington squandered billions of dollars on needless weaponry. Time and again, U.S. presidents weaponized their response to challenges overseas to protect them from charges of appeasement from the right. Habitually, their administrations misinterpreted events -- from Russia's Bolshevik revolution to the September 11 attacks -- to disastrous effect. In each case, expert advice was overlooked, ignored, or concealed, while in others, threats were manufactured as chips in petty political wagers. The fraudulent bomber and missile gaps and the Gulf of Tonkin incident did as much to injure U.S. interests overseas as did the notion that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and intended to use them preemptively.

Only a country so rich in resources and blessed by favorable geography could afford such malfeasance. America has been spared foreign invasion for more than 200 years and it can expect to remain inviolate for centuries to come. Yet each year, it spends enough money on national security to match the economic output of Indonesia -- with money borrowed largely from China, a country with which it is preparing for conflict. It insists on its right to launch a preemptive nuclear attack against such countries as North Korea and Iran -- oafish, bankrupt regimes that seek a complement of atomic bombs because they are surrounded by countries with bunkers full of them. America guarantees its friends and allies a place under its security umbrella even if their interests, particularly in the Middle East, diverge markedly from its own. In Europe, NATO remains a feudal confederation of armed forces with no raison d'être save to lend sanction to America's far-flung military enterprises. In Asia, South Korea, the world's 15th-largest economy, remains critically dependent on U.S. forces as a deterrent against its isolated, impoverished northern neighbor, while Japan wallows in a twilight world of middle-class prosperity and political ennui, content to slowly diminish as an American vassal.

In ancient times, empires exacted tribute from their dependencies. In the age of American hegemony, just the opposite is the case. In return for the global commons, the United States bankrolls a geopolitical welfare state that allows some of its largest beneficiaries to neglect their basic responsibilities as sovereign states and allies. A national debate over the economic and moral costs of this exchange is noteworthy for its absence. Segregated from the military and its burdens, with no reason to fear the consequences of war for themselves or their loved ones, a great majority of Americans are easily manipulated into backing a militarized response to challenges more suited to diplomacy. The purpose of hegemony is to preempt potential threats rather than respond to a clear and present danger. As voters are unlikely to support such a policy on its merits, hegemonists resort to gross exaggerations of speculative rivals, be they Russia and China or geopolitical runts such as North Korea and Iran.

The price of this deception is vast. If the Pentagon were a corporation, it would be the largest in the world as well as the most sloppily run. Its procurement budget, at a staggering $107 billion in 2010, expands even as the number of deployable warplanes, combat ships, and troops diminishes. To entice lawmakers into approving costly weapons programs, the Pentagon dangles the prospect of jobs in the states and districts of key lawmakers, a costly way of manufacturing but an astute political maneuver. Waste, inefficiency, and political patronage, no stranger to military-legislative affairs, get more lavish by the year. In April 2008, the Government Accountability Office found that 95 major Pentagon projects exceeded their original budgets by a total of nearly $300 billion. A year later, it concluded that nothing had changed. In 2009, lawmakers larded the Pentagon's annual budget proposal with nearly $5 billion in programs and weapons it did not request. With arms factories scattered like feeding troughs nationwide, America has become the equivalent of a company town with the Pentagon as primary employer. The making of war, or at least the preparation for it, has become a money center, a business line --- a racket, as Marine general and Medal of Honor recipient Smedley Butler put it nearly a century ago.

Though the Pentagon did not ask for empire, neither did it shirk from its calling. From 2001 to 2010, the baseline defense budget grew at an inflation-adjusted rate of 6 percent a year, to more than double its pre-September 11 size. Like interlocking threads in a great tapestry, no one really knows where the military's preserve begins and where it ends. Pentagon financial statements have been all but unauditable since 1991, the year it began submitting its accounts to Congress. In an October 2009 report, the Defense Department's Inspector General exposed more than a dozen "significant deficiencies" in Pentagon balance sheets from fiscal years 2004 to 2008. Mining opaque audit trails and murky contracting systems, the report uncovered more than $1 trillion in unsupported account entries. In September 2010, the Senate Finance Committee issued a report that slammed the Pentagon's "total lack of fiscal accountability" for "leaving huge sums of the taxpayers' money vulnerable to fraud and outright theft."

Even as defense officials and warfighters acknowledge that America's adversaries cannot be defeated with armed might alone, the Pentagon still has more lawyers than the State Department does diplomats. Washington's foreign aid budget routinely comes under assault by Congress as overly generous when in fact the United States is among the most miserly of countries when it comes to overseas assistance. The White House has called for 2,200 new Foreign Service officers for the State Department and USAID -- a drop in the bucket given the mismatch between the nation's resources and its commitments overseas. The number of State Department diplomats and support staff is only 10 percent greater than what it was a quarter century ago, when there were 24 fewer countries in the world and U.S. interests were concentrated in Europe and northeast Asia. The Pentagon, in contrast, has 1.5 million active-duty military personnel, an equal number of reservists and National Guardsmen, and 790,000 civilian employees. Moreover, unlike the U.S. military, which bases a fifth of its personnel overseas, nearly three-quarters of America's diplomatic corps are posted abroad. At any one time, a third of U.S.-based Foreign Service jobs are vacant, while 12 percent of the overseas positions, not including those in Iraq and Afghanistan, are unmanned. Foreign language proficiency, a core competency of the service, has languished due to funding gaps. Salaries have been slashed, and stingy retirement benefits have undercut retention rates.

American embassies loom imperiously over the skylines of the world's capital cities, barricaded against terrorist attacks and estranged from their hosts. They engender resentment from without and a siege mentality from within. Thanks to the gutting of State Department and foreign aid budgets by Senator Jesse Helms, followed by the disastrously militant politics of President George W. Bush, America's diplomats and aid workers are undermanned and overwhelmed. Absent an aggressive restructuring of America's civilian aid and diplomatic agencies, their dependence on, and submission to, the military will only intensify. An early draft of the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon's long-term threat assessment, put its civilian counterparts on notice. A key provision that demanded the Pentagon's "unprecedented say over U.S. security assistance programs" was softened to the wordy but more diplomatic: "Years of war have proven how important it is for America's civilian agencies to possess the resources and authorities needed to operate alongside the U.S. Armed Forces during complex contingencies at home and abroad." In other words, civilians must be harnessed in the service of military objectives in unstable regions or post-conflict areas, rather than focus on their core mission of nurturing U.S. diplomatic interests and reducing poverty. Or, as a source close to the QDR drafting process put it, "It is clear from the deleted parts that what DOD is saying about security assistance is: ‘We want in on the whole shebang.'"

Such is the state of disequilibrium between America's civilian and military resources as it enters the post, post-Cold War world. The years that followed the end of the Soviet era were but a prelude to what will be a far more enduring shift in the topography of geopolitical affairs. For the first time in two decades, U.S. hegemony will demand a price. The transaction Washington has kept with its allies -- generous subsidies in exchange for "full spectrum" control -- will be subject to competing claims. In theory at least, this should bid up the value of nonmilitary methods of protecting U.S. interests overseas. The aforementioned QDR, however, suggests otherwise. It makes numerous and repeated references to the centrality of "access," a catchword for the U.S. military's ability to operate unimpeded anywhere in the world. It identifies as a new and enduring threat "states armed with advanced anti-access capabilities and/or nuclear weapons," a veiled reference to the evolution of China as a regional power and the kind of peer competitor that Washington has made a policy of preempting. The looming rivalry between Beijing and Washington has already replaced Islamic extremism as the main preoccupation of U.S. security planners, the same way al Qaeda filled the void left by the departed Soviet Union on the Pentagon's revolving rotisserie of existential threats. Just as Washington militarized the Cold War and its response to the September 11 attacks, so too is it militarizing its relations with China.

In 2001, the Defense Department produced a study called "Asia 2025," which identified China as a "persistent competitor of the United States," bent on "foreign military adventurism." A U.S. base realignment plan made public in 2004 called for a new chain of bases to be erected in Central Asia and the Middle East, in part to box in China. A 2008 deal between the United States and India that would allow New Delhi to greatly expand its nuclear weapons capability was established very much with China, their mutual rival, in mind. At the same time, the Pentagon is well into a multiyear effort to transform its military base on Guam into its primary hub for operations in the Pacific. While the QDR drily refers to "the Guam buildup" as a means to "deter and defeat" regional aggressors, John Pike of the Washington, D.C. based Globalsecurity.org has speculated that the Pentagon wants to "run the planet from Guam and Diego Garcia by 2015."

In March 2011, Inside the Navy reported how the U.S. government was deep in the planning stages of a major military buildup in Asia. In response, China is expanding its fleet of diesel-powered subs at a base on Hainan Island and is developing the capacity to attack and destroy satellites as well as aircraft carriers. It has also laid a provocative marker down on a cluster of islands in the South China Sea that are the subject of a simmering territorial row between it and Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan, and Indonesia. In 2010, Beijing identified the South China Sea as a "core interest," a term it previously applied only to Tibet and Taiwan, a move that was seized upon in Washington as a de facto declaration of sovereignty over the region and an augur of Chinese bullying to come. If a Sino-American war is inevitable, it is now generally assumed that a hotly contested South China Sea may be its epicenter.

There is nothing inevitable about an American war with China, however, and even Chinese security planners believe the U.S.-Chinese rivalry will be economic, rather than military, in character. There is, however, an emerging rhythm to Sino-U.S. affairs: The Pentagon, still clinging to the spirit, if not the letter, of the 1992 Defense Planning Guidance, reflexively interprets an emerging regional power or political movement as a strategic threat. It gathers allies and punishes neutrals in an undeclared policy to isolate it. Defense analysts exaggerate the threat's military might while discounting the historical factors that inform and motivate it. Politicians in Washington convene hearings and, briefed as to the nation's ill-preparedness, demand an immediate military buildup. Pundits condemn the commander in chief for being soft on America's adversaries even as diplomats and intelligence experts overseas assure the White House that the danger is largely in the minds of those peddling it back home. Such admonitions, however, are obscured or ignored in what is now a key election-year issue. Surveillance is met with countersurveillance. Heightened alert status provokes the same. An incident occurs, either by accident or by design.

It is war.

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An FP special roundtable on Japan’s post-tsunami future.


On March 11, 2011, Japan's northern coast was shaken by the biggest earthquake ever to strike the island in recorded history. With a gigantic tsunami and the nuclear meltdown that followed, 3/11 was the worst disaster to hit the developed world for a hundred years. Confronted with tough questions about its dependence on nuclear power, about the competence of its leaders both in the private and public sectors, about the economy's ability to rebound from a shock, the country has been plunged into crisis. After centuries of earthquakes, tsunamis, war, and a long list of other disasters, natural and unnatural, the Japanese people are accustomed to building back stronger -- but how do they recover from such a devastating blow, and what will that new future look like?

FP's latest ebook, Tsunami: Japan's Post-Fukushima Future, the in-depth look at the quake's aftermath, assembles an exclusive collection of the top writers and scholars working in Japan today to answer these questions. In the excerpts published here, a group of Japan-watchers debate the country's nuclear future: Will TEPCO, which supplies 29 percent of all of Japan's electricity, be able to rebuild or will its collapse drag down the Japanese economy? What was the role of Japan's famous "nuclear village" -- the close-knit, revolving-door community of nuclear-industry officials, regulators, and lobbyists who've managed to keep Japan pro-nuclear even after the shocks of Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- in allowing the Fukushima disaster to happen? And does it make sense to continue building nuclear power plants in a country so susceptible to natural disaster, or would a new smart grid based on renewable energy sources be a better solution for Japan's north, as Andrew DeWit and Masaru Keneko argue?

For a longer look, plus articles on many other angles of Japan's disaster, check out the ebook -- with proceeds going to the Japan Society's tsunami relief efforts.

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Lawrence Repeta: Could the Meltdown Have Been Averted?

According to Greek legend, the god Apollo bestowed on the beautiful Cassandra the gift of prophecy, but when she resisted his charms, he applied the curse that no one would believe the truths she foretold. Thus, the Trojans ignored her warnings of impending doom.

A government hearing on TEPCO's interim report about Fukushima No. 1 provided the stage for an eerie forewarning of the tragedy to come. At this June 2009 gathering, a Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry official named Yukinobu Okamura presented research concerning another great tsunami that had appeared more than a millennium ago, in the year 869 (the Jogan earthquake and tsunami). Soil analysis and other work indicated that the waters from this tsunami had penetrated as far as three to four kilometers inland into the area of the modern city of Sendai. Sendai lies between the coastal zones to the north decimated by the great tsunamis of 1933 and 1896 and Fukushima No. 1, about 100 kilometers to the south of the city. The March 11 quake and tsunami are thought to bear many similarities to the Jogan monster of 869. Okamura asserted that TEPCO's plans were inadequate to protect the Fukushima complex against tsunami waves of the size and location generated by the great Jogan quake and demanded better defenses. Like Cassandra's prophecies, however, Okamura's warnings were laid aside, perhaps to be considered another day.

According to comments of a Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) official published by the Associated Press after the disaster, NISA had never demanded that TEPCO explain its tsunami protection measures and had not conducted its own studies of what degree of protection might be "appropriate." Various published reports indicate that TEPCO assumed that tsunami waves would not exceed 5.7 meters. This official further said that NISA was about to begin a study of tsunami risks this year.

The story of the Fukushima reactors is intimately tied to Japan's postwar pursuit of rapid economic growth. The most fundamental cause of the disaster is the boundless appetite for power needed to drive the economy.

Surely the die was cast when the first Fukushima reactors were built. Japan's nuclear industry was in its infancy. Contractors followed blueprints and designs provided by General Electric (GE), and GE sent technical staff to Japan to advise on construction. Perhaps the GE design team was not familiar with local tsunami risk and the Japanese contractors were overly focused on successfully completing their work according to GE's plans. Some have even suggested that the Fukushima No. 1 complex was a "learning experience" for Japanese engineers.

In accordance with the GE plans, the emergency power generators and water pumps were placed between the reactor buildings and the sea. Fukushima No. 1 continued in operation for more than 40 years. Despite local knowledge of tsunami history, the better plan developed for Fukushima No. 2 and a senior official's specific objections to the TEPCO report in 2009, neither TEPCO nor any agency of the Japanese government took action to address the risks at Fukushima No. 1. Just before the disaster, NISA renewed TEPCO's license to operate the complex for another 10 years.

The evidence suggests that regulators are under the thumb of the regulated and that critical voices are ignored. Japan's present regulatory apparatus is weak and constrained by profound conflicts. It is simply not up to the role of contending with the dominant force of the nuclear power village. Coastal communities built seawalls on the assumption that another great tsunami would come one day. TEPCO operated its Fukushima No. 1 reactors on the assumption that it would not. As long as the facility continued to generate power and profits, institutional resistance to change overcame the faint glimmering of tsunami risk. The people relied on public officials to protect them, but the officials failed.

The obvious lesson from the Tohoku disaster is that if we continue to rely on nuclear power, we must establish independent regulatory agencies free of the control of private corporations driven by profit and of the bureaucratic mindset that denies all challenge to conventional wisdom. It's not clear that this is possible. Humanity may have learned the science necessary to dominate the forces of nature to produce nuclear power, but it has not yet evolved the human structures needed to ensure that this science is applied safely.

Lawrence Repeta is a professor of law at Meiji University.

Toshirharu Kato/Japanese Red Cross/IFRC via Getty Images

Andrew Horvat: How American Nuclear Reactors Failed Japan

What does Astro Boy have to do with the failed nuclear reactors at Fukushima? Plenty. The rise in popularity of the pop culture icon starting from the early 1950s closely parallels the gradual acceptance by the Japanese public of nuclear power as a source of electrical energy. Astro Boy both promoted and reflected optimistic visions of prosperity through atomic energy typical both in Japan and the United States in the latter half of the last century. After all, the cute little robot with rockets for legs is known in Japan as Tetsuwan Atomu (Powerful Atom). His little sister is Uran (uranium), and his brother is Kobaruto (Cobalt). There is hardly anyone in the "nuclear family" not entirely radioactive. All these characters offered pleasant distractions from the political infighting and bureaucratic turf wars that ultimately saddled Japan with nuclear generating equipment that was neither the safest nor the most efficient but that, at least until March 11, proved to be highly profitable for this country's entrenched utilities.

The decision against importing the CANDU, a highly stable Canadian-made brand of nuclear reactor, after more than a decade of vacillation offers an opportunity to analyze Japan's policy priorities in nuclear energy. They would appear to be close ties with the United States, diversification of sources of energy supply, strong bureaucratic control and localization of foreign technology with a view to promoting future exports. Safety and efficiency do not appear to be on the list.

Were one to be rude, one might add that greed and complacency also played a role. We now know that TEPCO had enormous financial resources and that executives had every opportunity to increase safety at the aging Fukushima plants. TEPCO had been warned to prepare for a tidal wave significantly higher than Fukushima Daiichi's 5.6-meter retaining wall. The poor design features of the Fukushima plant -- the fact that spent fuel was stored inside the reactor housing and that emergency diesel generators were installed in the basement of the turbine buildings where they would be flooded -- were all pointed out at various times.

A nonmainstream publication, Shukan Kin'yobi (Weekly Friday), accused TEPCO of spending money not on emergency preparedness but on payments to 25 prominent public figures to appear in advertising aimed at persuading consumers that safety was a high priority for the electric utility. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano demonstrated that he understood public sentiment when he said on television that TEPCO and not the taxpayer should be made to pay for the damage and disruption caused by the failed reactors. His statement came roughly at the same time as news reports detailing the real estate and other holdings TEPCO would sell off to raise Y100 billion ($1.2 billion) just to stabilize four damaged reactors. The assets included some 33 holiday resorts and retreats for use by TEPCO employees, including senior executives. The utility also promised to eliminate 21 directorships, given to former executives and company friends who were required to do little to deserve lavish remuneration and copious perks.

Serious nuclear engineers such as Heinrich Bonnenberg are also upset and with good reason. Bonnenberg echoes the remarks of Atsushi Kasai, former laboratory chief of the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, when he writes, "The energy industry and politicians valued profitability over safety. They built unsafe nuclear power plants with light-water reactors based on a faulty design.… Due to the disaster in Fukushima, people have lost confidence in all nuclear energy technologies."

It is not a coincidence that the relatively safe HTR reactor that Bonnenberg champions and the latest version of the CANDU are being built in China. Renewable energy may be the wave of the future, but safer nuclear reactors are needed to fill the gap. In the 1980s, Osamu Tezuka, the cartoonist who created Astro Boy, replaced the nuclear reactor in his robot hero's chest with a reactor using deuterium, the D in CANDU. Had TEPCO executives only paid more attention to the exploits of Astro Boy.

Andrew Horvat is a Japan-based journalist who worked as a correspondent for the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times and the Independent of London.

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Paul J. Scalise: Can TEPCO Survive?

For the past 10 years, TEPCO's generated cash flow has slowly but surely declined. Falling electricity prices in a liberalized market, stagnant demand growth, rising operating costs and unforeseen natural disasters plague the company. Little by little, TEPCO has been forced to increase its borrowing to meet its obligations. Perhaps the most ironic of all, TEPCO has been forced to trade on its brand name. The remarkable loyalty of its customers, creditors and regulators guaranteed that virtually any cost in the siting, licensing and construction of controversial power plants could eventually be passed on to its loyal customers while the company relied on low-cost corporate bonds, bank loans and commercial paper to fund mounting capital expenditures in the short term.

The Law on Compensation for Nuclear Damage suggests that "the government shall give a nuclear operator ... such aid as is required for him to compensate the damage, when the actual amount which he should pay for the nuclear damage … exceeds the financial security amount and when the government deems it necessary in order to attain the objectives of this act."

TEPCO is well aware of its legal rights. It is also well aware of the market and commercial realities. Press too hard and you risk alienating your customer base and the delicate tapestry of public opinion. Don't press hard enough and your company's viability, its shareholders and eventually its legacy will be lost. What to do?

At the time of writing, TEPCO now trades at only Y200 a share. Both the market and the country increasingly view this situation with dread. Time is running out.

Paul J. Scalise is nonresident fellow at the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies, Temple University, Japan campus. This article is an expanded version of the original titled "Looming electricity crisis: three scenarios for economic impact," Oriental Economist, Economic Outlook, Vol. 79, No. 4, April 2011, pp. 8-9.


Andrew DeWit and Masaru Keneko: Moving Out of the "Nuclear Village"

Long dismissed as a dwindling has-been, a "fly-over" between China and America, Japan has suddenly been catapulted into an energy future that all nations face.… The need to reconstruct a good part of the Tohoku region, including much of its electrical grid, opens the possibility of doing the power part of the Y20- to Y30-trillion job "smart," sustainable and distributed (broadly dispersed) rather than conventional and centralized. The monopolized utilities, including the "nuclear village" of industry insiders and regulators, have been working behind the scenes over the past two years to impede domestic progress on installing smart grids and evolving smart-city urban forms. This obstructionism derives from generalized inertia as well as fear of losing their dominance to distributed power. But now Japan has the chance to leapfrog its own sunk costs and incumbent interests.

The balance of power in energy policy-making is fluid and hotly contested, but the sustainable-energy policy option is rapidly moving to the center of Japanese public debate. The discourse in the media, reconstruction committees and elsewhere increasingly recognizes that the centralized system focused on nuclear power is too costly and dangerous. Highly complex, centralized systems per se are inherently and disastrously vulnerable to shocks, something as true of financial regimes and supply chains as it is of power generation and transmission. By contrast, Germany and a host of other countries and regions prioritize sustainable energy. They distribute increasing amounts of small-scale generating capacity among the myriad rooftops, yards, rivers and open fields of households, small businesses, farmers, local communities and so on. This strategy not only spreads the wealth and political influence created by a growing energy economy; it also bolsters the generating network because it is less vulnerable to the concentrated shock of an earthquake and tsunami. Natural disasters do not hit everywhere at once.

Andrew DeWit is professor of the politics of public finance and chair of the graduate program at Rikkyo University in Tokyo. Masaru Kaneko is professor of public finance in the faculty of economics at Keio University in Japan. DeWit thanks the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science for its generous research funding.


Robert Dujarric: Why a Nukes-Free Future is a False Dream

The emotional reaction to the Fukushima Daiichi disaster has failed to take into account the risks and costs inherent in the alternatives to atomic electricity generation.

Opponents of nuclear power often suggest that the solution is consuming less energy. This is a worthy goal, but there are limits to what can be achieved without accepting a fall in the standard of living except if one accepts a return to the Stone Age. Moreover, there are still billions of human beings on the planet who live in poverty. If they are to enjoy a better life they will need to consume more energy to light and heat their homes, wash their clothes, keep their food cold and travel to school and work. They will -- rightly -- want to have access to goods that require manufactured energy and to energy-consuming services. Therefore, though they mean well, the more extreme antinuclear groups in the developed world want to deny a large percentage of humankind the benefits of a modern technologically advanced standard of living that they themselves enjoy. Their message to the world's poor is "Sorry, the boat is full, have a nice day, it was nice knowing you."

Another alternative to nuclear plants could be solar- or wind-based electricity production and other sources of energy such as biomass or hydroelectricity. Unfortunately there are severe technological and economic obstacles to be overcome to allow these techniques to make a much greater contribution to the world's energy needs. Additionally, some of them, such as biofuels, turn out to have ecological and other costs that make them far from perfect. Questions are often raised about the unintended ecological consequences of the dams that produce hydroelectricity. In several cases, such as the dams Turkey has built upriver from Syria and Iraq, hydroelectricity can fuel international conflicts between upstream and downstream nations. Investing more in these options makes sense. Regulatory changes and effective tax incentives could help a lot. But we cannot expect renewables to "solve" the energy question in the foreseeable future. Moreover, if they come online, the priority should be to use them to decrease oil consumption.

Thus, though they seldom mention it, those who seek to abandon nuclear power are arguing in favor of greater reliance on fossil fuels. Their prescription is "let's burn more oil and let's drill everywhere." Unfortunately, there are costs associated with this option. One that is often forgotten is the geopolitical price. The inescapable fact is that the largest reserves are located in politically volatile regions, principally but not exclusively the Persian Gulf and North Africa. West Africa, where oil is also plentiful, is not particularly stable, and few can predict with certainty that Kazakhstan will remain the steady autocracy it has been since the breakup of the Soviet Union. With regard to natural gas, countries such as Russia and Qatar are not the ideal suppliers. In fact, of the major oil and gas exporters, only Norway and Canada (for gas) qualify as countries that offer stability, the rule of law and foreign-policy ambitions that are compatible with world peace.

Thus, as a consequence of the distribution of petroleum reserves, the United States and its allies have had to sacrifice the lives of their servicemen and women and spend trillions of dollars over the past decades to sustain a military establishment that could, in case of emergency, take control of the Persian Gulf oil fields. The self-destructive U.S. invasion of Iraq has understandably discredited American intervention in the region. But the fact remains that should a dreadful contingency -- be it a global Shia-Sunni war, an Iran-Saudi conflict or an al-Qaeda uprising in Saudi Arabia -- threaten to shut off the Persian Gulf oil fields, even the most devoted pacifists in Japan would want the U.S. military -- perhaps helped this time by China and partly funded by Japanese taxpayers -- to take control of the region to prevent a Great Depression II.

Nuclear power itself is not without its disadvantages. These include storage of radioactive waste, control of highly dangerous substances that can be used to build nuclear weapons and the potential for lethal accidents. Policies that encourage conservation and development of alternative sources of energy are highly desirable. But overall, countries that decide to abandon nuclear energy in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi accident may well be embarking on a road that will do more harm than good to their economies and the environment.

Robert Dujarric is director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies, Temple University, Japan campus. He gave a paid lecture at Areva University in 2008.

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Gavan McCormack: Building the Next Fukushimas

March 2011 is set to mark a caesura in Japanese history comparable to August 1945: the end of a particular model of state, economy and society, both marked by nuclear catastrophes that shook the world (even if the present one seems likely to be slightly muted and the meltdown kept to partial, the regional consequences may be broader, the number of people disastrously affected greater). Where the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki signaled the end point of the path chosen by the young officers of the Kwantung Army in the 1930s, the chaos and apocalyptic apprehension of postquake and tsunami Fukushima in 2011 is the end point of the path chosen by senior state bureaucrats and their corporate and political collaborators in the 1950s and steadily, incrementally reinforced ever since. Their legacy is today's nuclear state Japan. 1945 was a purely human-caused disaster. 2011 differs in that it was occasioned by natural disaster, but human factors hugely exacerbated it.

Japan's "Hiroshima syndrome" of fear and loathing for all things nuclear meant that cooperation with U.S. nuclear-war-fighting strategy had to be kept secret, in mitsuyaku or "secret treaties," especially in the 1960s and 1970s, that have become public only in the past two years. The nuclear energy commitment, also pressed by the U.S., had likewise to be concealed, never submitted to electoral scrutiny and continually subject to manipulation (extensive advertising campaigns), cover-up (especially of successive incidents) and deception (as to risk and safety levels). The extent of that too is now laid bare.

The way out of the current disaster remains unclear. The debate over Japan's energy and technology future will be long and hard, but what is now clear is that Japanese democracy has to rethink the frame within which this elite was able to overrun all opposition and push the country to its present brink. The crisis is not just one of radiation, failed energy supply, possible meltdown, the death of tens of thousands, health and environmental hazard but of governability, of democracy. Civic democracy has to find a way to seize control over the great irresponsible centers of fused state-capital monopoly and open a new path toward sustainability and responsibility. A new mode of energy generation and of socioeconomic organization has to be sought. Ultimately it has to be a new vision for a sustainable society.

It is of course a paradox that nuclear victim Japan should have become what it is now: one of the world's most nuclear-committed, if not nuclear-obsessed countries. Protected and privileged within the American embrace, it has over this half century became a nuclear-cycle country and a plutonium superpower, the sole non-nuclear state committed to possessing both enrichment and reprocessing facilities and the fast-breeder reactor project. Its leaders chose to see the most dangerous substance known to humanity, plutonium, as the magical solution to the country's energy security. While international attention focused on the North Korean nuclear threat, Japan escaped serious international scrutiny as it pursued its nuclear destiny. One bizarre consequence is the emergence of Japan as a greater nuclear threat to the region than North Korea.

Just over a decade from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, at the time of Eisenhower's "atoms for peace" speech, Japan's Atomic Energy Commission drew up its first plans. The 1967 Long-Term Nuclear Program already incorporated the fuel cycle and fast-breeder program. By 2006, the Ministry of Economics, Trade, and Industry's "New National Energy Policy" set the objective of turning Japan into a "nuclear state" (genshiryoku rikkoku). Nuclear power generation grew steadily as a proportion of the national grid, from 3 percent of total power in 1973 at the time of the first oil crisis to 26 percent by 2008 and around 29 percent today. The country's basic energy policy calls for the ratio of nuclear, hydro and other renewables (nuclear the overwhelming one) to be nearly 50 percent by 2030. Under the Basic Energy Plan of 2010, nine new reactors were to be built by 2020 (none having been built since the 1970s in the wake of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl) and 14 by 2030, while operating levels of existing reactors were to be raised from 60 percent as of 2008 to 85 percent by 2020 and then 90 percent by 2030.

The dream of eternal, almost limitless energy has inspired the imagination of generations of Japanese national bureaucrats. In the words of a panel at the Aquatom nuclear theme park-science museum in Tsuruga, close to the Monju plutonium fast-breeder reactor, "Japan is a poor country in natural resources … therefore Monju, a plutonium-burning reactor, is necessary because plutonium can be used for thousands of years."

Trillions of yen were channeled into nuclear research and development programs and additional vast sums appropriated to construct and run major nuclear complexes. If the Federation of Electric Power Cos. estimate is even roughly correct, that the Rokkasho complex in northern Honshu will cost Y19 trillion over the projected 40-year term of its use, that would make it Japan's, if not the world's, most expensive civil facility in history. Japan is alone among non-nuclear-weapon states in its pursuit of the full nuclear cycle, building plants to reprocess its reactor wastes, burning plutonium as part of its fuel mix (as at the Fukushima Daiichi's No. 3 plant since late 2010), storing large volumes of "low-level" wastes, and desperately struggling to chart a way forward to fast-breeder technology, something so prodigiously difficult and expensive that the rest of the world has set it aside as a pipe dream. At all stages -- fuel preparation, reactor construction and operation, waste extraction, reprocessing, storage -- its nuclear system was problematic long before the tsunami crashed into its Fukushima plant on March 11, 2011.

There are 54 reactors in operation or were till March. At Fukushima the reactor cores may have survived intact, but the management practice of leaving highly toxic and long-lived wastes in ponds beside the actual reactor has proven a terrible mistake. According to atomic specialist Robert Alvarez, such pools contain radioactivity between five and 10 times greater than that of one reactor core, with one pond holding "more cesium 137 than was deposited by all nuclear weapons tests in the Northern Hemisphere combined," and "a major release of cesium 137 from a pool fire could render an area uninhabitable greater than that created by the Chernobyl accident." Whether because of sloshing under the impact of the quake or leakage from structural collapse, the rods at several of the Fukushima plants were partially exposed for unknown periods, fires did burn with unknown consequences and the resumption of cooling using seawater by fire hose or helicopter bombing and ultimately by the reconnection of pumps has proven immensely difficult.

Once the immediate crisis passes, these plants will have to be decontaminated and dismantled, an expensive, difficult and time-consuming task that will take decades, while the electricity they once provided must be somehow substituted. Whether they can or will simply be cased in concrete like Chernobyl remains to be seen, but they will surely become a monument to the disastrous mistakes of the postwar Japanese nuclear plan.

Of the major complexes other than Fukushima, the most notorious are those at Kashiwazaki in Niigata and Hamaoka in Shizuoka. Kashiwazaki, with seven reactors generating 8,000 megawatts, is the world's largest nuclear generation plant. The 6.8-magnitude quake it experienced on July 16, 2007, was more than twice as strong as the design had allowed for, and the site proved to be on a previously undetected fault line. Catastrophic breakdown did not occur, but multiple malfunctioning did, including burst pipes, fire and radioactive leaks into sea and air. The Hamaoka complex, 190 kilometers southwest of Tokyo, has five reactors, which, like those at Kashiwazaki, sit on fault lines where the Eurasian, Pacific, Philippine and North American plates grind against one another and where experts predict a strong chance of a powerful quake sometime in the near future. Company officials say the plant is designed to withstand an 8.5-magnitude earthquake, as that was believed to have been the most powerful ever known in the area. After Fukushima's 9.0, however, the preconditions on which Hamaoka was based have collapsed. A Fukushima-level event here could force the evacuation of up to 30 million people.

Perhaps most controversial of the site plans is that for two reactors to be built at Kaminoseki, population 3,700, an exquisitely beautiful national park site at the southern end of the Inland Sea about 80 kilometers from Hiroshima, one to commence operation in 2018 and the other in 2022. After nearly 30 years of attempts to start these works, blocked by fierce local resistance, especially on the part of the fishing community of Iwaishima, the island that faces the reactor site across about four kilometers of sea, preliminary forest clearing and sea refilling works began late in 2010. With fierce confrontation continuing between fishing boats, canoes and kayaks on the part of the protesters and the power company's ships, however, it is hard to imagine that after March 2011 the government will find the will to move in and crush the protesters. Indeed, the governor of the prefecture has demanded that work be halted (and in the wake of March 11 it has indeed halted, at least temporarily).

For the country whose scientific and engineering skills are the envy of the world to have been guilty of the disastrous miscalculations and malpractices that have marked the past half century -- including data falsification and fabrication, the duping of safety inspectors, the belittling of risk and the failure to report criticality incidents and emergency shutdowns -- and then to have been reduced to desperate attempts with fire hoses and buckets to prevent a catastrophic meltdown in 2011 raises large questions not just for Japan but for humanity. Could the rest of the world, for which the U.S. government holds out the prospect of nuclear renaissance, do better?

The "nuclear state Japan" plans have plainly been shaken by the events of March 2011. It is too much to expect that they will be dropped, but the struggle between Japan's nuclear bureaucracy, pursuing the chimera of limitless clean energy, global leadership, a solution to global warming, the maintenance of nuclear weapon defenses (America's "extended deterrent") on the one hand and Japan's civil society, pursuing its agenda of social, ecological and economic sustainability, democratic decision-making, abolition of nuclear weapons, phasing out of nuclear power projects, and reliance on renewable energy, zero emission, material recycling and non-nuclear technologies enters a new phase after March 2011.

Gavan McCormack is a coordinator of the Asia-Pacific Journal and an emeritus professor of Australian National University. He is the author, most recently, of Client State: Japan in the American Embrace (New York, 2007, Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing 2008) and Target North Korea: Pushing North Korea to the Brink of Nuclear Catastrophe (New York, 2004, Tokyo and Seoul 2006). This essay, which draws on and updates a 2007 Japan Focus article, was written for Le Monde Diplomatique, where it was posted online in French in April 2011.