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In Japan, nuclear bestsellers reflect new debate

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TOKYO — A Japanese nuclear researcher with a four-decade track record of activism and obscurity was walking through Kansai International Airport a few weeks ago when he spotted a display of bestsellers at a bookstore. Glancing down, he saw his latest book, “The Lie of Nuclear Power,” with his face emblazoned on a corner of the cover.

For Hiroaki Koide, the moment confirmed a shift — that of a fringe interest turning mainstream. Four months into the most severe nuclear crisis in a quarter-century, while bureaucrats and power industry chiefs tussle over nuclear energy policy, at least one industry has raced to make wholesale adjustments. Publishers are releasing books about nuclear power at the rate of more than one a day, according to bookselling Web sites, begging for content from authors who once wondered why they had so few readers.

Those books now drive Japan’s new national debate about nuclear energy policy. They also mirror the trend in the conversation, skewing 4-to-1 against nuclear power — roughly the ratio recorded in recent opinion polls. Some of the books are dispassionate, loaded with charts. Some drip with anger. Some are rueful. But taken together, they reflect a society that has increasingly lost trust in government information.

The author list is eclectic, encompassing academics, journalists, industry experts, former insiders and renegade government officials. Eisaku Sato, a former Fukushima governor, wrote a book (“The Truth About Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant”). So did Yoichi Kikuchi, one of the engineers who helped construct Fukushima Daiichi (“The Reason Why I, Who Made Nuclear Power, Now Oppose It”). One Economy Ministry official took a crack at telling an insider’s tale — “The Collapse of Japan’s Central Administration,” he called it — but about a month after Shigeaki Koga became a best-selling author, he was asked to resign, a request he has so far resisted.

Though there is no definitive list of nuclear-related books published since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that triggered the crisis, Amazon.com’s Japan site lists almost 100 released in the past 30 days, Minato Kawamura, a professor at Tokyo’s Hosei University, has tried to keep pace, spending more than $2,500 on 150 recently published nuclear books, including 100 re-released versions of older titles.

Kawamura’s expertise in all things nuclear developed after he had written a nuclear book of his own — a diary-style account of the emergency’s first 15 days. When Fukushima Daiichi’s reactor buildings started to melt down, he had been in the middle of writing a book about Japan’s wartime occupation of Manchuria.

“I called my editor and asked, ‘Um, can I change the subject?’ ” Kawamura said.

Nuclear experts note that Japan’s publishing industry had long followed a policy every bit as entrenched as the pro-nuclear message promulgated by Tokyo bureaucrats.

For decades, “the saying was, a book that relates to nuclear power doesn’t sell,” said Jun Tateno, a former official at the Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute who published a little-read book in 2003.

Academics and researchers in the field, particularly those who opposed the use of nuclear power, had little choice but to embrace obscurity. Koide, an assistant professor at the Kyoto University Research Reactor Institute, spent his career assisting with anti-nuclear lawsuits and giving lectures to small civic groups. He also wrote several dense books, most of them compilations of his lectures, starting with the 1992 title “Going Beyond the Realities of Radioactive Contamination,” which sold 3,000 copies, Koide said.

The March 11 disaster boosted demand for Koide’s expertise. Now his lectures draw up to 1,000 people. His phone rings twice a day, on average, with interview requests. He appears on television. But he acknowledges that the transformation has caused him more regret than satisfaction.

“I heard this book was selling well, but I have very mixed feelings about that,” Koide said of his new book, which has sold more than 200,000 copies. “It’s selling well because the accident happened. The last 40 years, I’ve been working in this field so accidents like this wouldn’t happen. Now something horrible happened, and my books are popular.”

In conversation and in his books, Koide talks often about responsibility. For the nuclear accident itself, he blames both the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co., the plant’s operator. He blames the collusive relationship between regulators and operators. But he also blames the bystanders — indeed, much of the nation that bought the idea that nuclear power is safe.

“Those who were deceived are also responsible for having being deceived,” Koide wrote in his book.

Compared with the past, he wrote in earlier passage, more and more people are listening to him now: “People are beginning to realize that nuclear power is dangerous. I think maybe now is the time when we can make a decision to make a significant turnaround in our society.”

Special correspondents Akiko Yamamoto and Sachiko Iwata contributed to this report.

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