TOKYO (SAPP) - After many years of international pressure to stop whaling, sources close to the prime minister of Japan, Yoshihiko Noda, have admitted that whaling has become a vital source of energy for the country. Members of Mr. Noda's inner circle have told the SAPP that whales are being harvested for their blubber to literally keep the lights on in Tokyo. We have also found that whale harvesting is increasing in an effort to meet the electrical demands of the country.
In March 2011, a major earthquake and tsunami caused irreparable damage to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plants owned and operated by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). Prior to the 9.0 magnitude earthquake, approximately 25 percent of Japan's electricity came from nuclear energy. That figure is now 0 percent, and it is doubtful that it will increase in the foreseeable future.
Since June 2011, distrust of TEPCO and the Japanese nuclear regulatory agency increased to the point where 80 percent of Japanese say they are anti-nuclear and distrust government information on radiation. Meanwhile, the Japanese are consistently heavy consumers of fresh seafood and seafood products, with approximately 86% of adults 19 to 75 years old eating some kind of seafood each week.
So it may not be a surprise that the seafaring Japanese would look to the oceans for a renewable energy source. "I love eating raw fish. So when someone told me that the scraps could be made into an energy source, I was very excited," says a handsome 20-something Kotone Inoue who is now the lead researcher for TEPCOW, the new acronym for TEPCO with the final "W" standing for a number for different words, the most obvious is the whale.
"We have been researching whales for decades here in Japan. I am the first one to discover, or actually rediscover, that whale blubber makes a good source of fuel. At TEPCOW, we intend to replace nuclear power by melting down whale blubber in vessels like this," Miss Inoue says as she points to a 100-ton vat full of smelly whale trimmings. The vat of whale and fish trimmings is about halfway into the process of turning seafood into electricity.
As we tour the plant located on the shore near Osaka, Miss Inoue shows us the vast secret tunnels full of laborers that cut the whales into pieces small enough to fit into the massive cleaving machines. It is no secret that undocumented workers, mostly from Thailand and China, for years have labored in extreme cold temperatures to process the vast number of whales needed to supply Japan's appetite for whale meat. The secret is the huge increase of such workers here in Osaka Prefecture over the last 12 months to process fish and whale scraps. The government has now hired TEPCO/TEPCOW to convert the waste stream into electricity.
"We are now powering Tokyo with that smell," Miss Inoue coyly remarks as she removes her neat blue gloves at an exit. There are huge generators in the room next door, newly installed by Mitsubishi. Each 500 megawatt electric turbine is run by steam produced by burning the whale oil and fish parts. The goal is to do all of this in secret and to let the government take the blame for the nuclear fictions that TEPCO told the public. "We love it when the politicians take the blame for our mistakes, but this time we are trying to atone for the lies. TEPCOW is going to supplant the nuclear tragedy by using the whale, which people here are endeared to. When we are finished building this plant, we will be producing about 18% of the energy needs of Japan, and about 40% of Tokyo's." That amount is close to being able to replace the dozens of nuclear plants that TEPCO had to shut down.
As we toured the refrigerated area where the whale blubber processing tables are located, one thing we noted was the astonishing similarity of their attire to the people working at Fukushima Daiichi. "I tell my wife that I am working at a nuclear processing plant," says a Chinese man who asked us not to reveal his name. Apparently meaning this in jest, he added, "And when I cut myself, I feign radiation sickness." It is clearly an open secret that the whale blubber processors are here to save Japan's nuclear energy woes.
The other striking thing we learned was that whales are being harvested at a dramatically increasing rate. Since July 2011, the number of whales caught by Japanese boats has increased from about 85 whales per month to an astonishing 104 per day. That is about 37 times more whales going under the knife. These numbers are estimates based on the increase in people processing the blubber. It is also corroborated by some of the old-timers. The Chinese man who spoke to us on the condition of anonymity also told us that he used to work with about 80 others. The workforce, by our estimates, is now roughly 2,960 people. While we were inside the refrigerated section, we counted more than 85 whale heads and a similar number of dorsal fins.
This is one massive operation, and some of the other workers knew of the great increase in processing. "We see 100 new workers each week," said one Japanese man who cuts up whales. "There is a constant training program by TEPCOW because of the turnover. But at least we have jobs. I am glad, for one, because I lost my job when the tsunami destroyed my livelihood as a truck driver in and out of the area that is now restricted [because of the radiation]." Ironically, the man used to deliver fish sometimes, and he admits to one curious cargo he likely carried. "I delivered to grocery stores and small markets. I am pretty sure I sometimes delivered whale meat. It's a strange world."
As we toured the electric generating station, we were often accosted by sheepish gazes. There is not many of the TEPCOW people working on the generating side of the plant who will talk to reporters. They try to mind their own business. But one man wasn't ashamed. "I think this is so good for the environment," he states, speaking of the whale blubber plant. Mr. Sato claims that the plant is safe and smart. "We are increasing our power output to the grid almost daily. I am so proud of [the contribution of] the whales! Those people out there (pointing to the refrigerated whale butchers) reflect the way Japanese people are resilient in a crisis. I think they say in English, 'When life gives you lemons, make yellow tea.'" Although Mr. Sato's recollection of English idioms isn't completely accurate, we believe his sentiments speak for the TEPCOW project: the people of Japan are going to do whatever possible to overcome their nuclear tragedy. And whales are going to be a vital part. They will make their "yellow tea", or lemonade... whatever you prefer to call it.
After touring the plant and preparing to publish this story, we contacted the Prime Minister's office for an official comment on the use of whale blubber as fuel. This was received by e-mail from the prime minister's press secretary:
"The Prime Minister has been made aware of the concerns brought by your story. However, there is no reason to believe that the Japanese government has any part in the operations you describe. While whale blubber appears to be an underestimated natural resource, Prime Minister Noda has no public policies that would encourage blubber meltdown as a replacement for uranium meltdown."