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Who pays for nuclear nightmare?

Dear Prime Minister Naoto Kan,

At a time when the situation at Japan’s damaged nuclear power plants remains grave, the question of who is going to pay for the costs associated with this unprecedented tragedy may appear premature. Yet, in a recent news conference Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano recognized that this question must be addressed, though he expressed the opinion that Tepco should be held responsible, at least initially.

However, foreign media have reported that Tepco’s commercial insurers expect the Japanese government to bear the cost, not themselves. They claim Tepco cannot be held responsible because, according to Japanese law, the operator of a nuclear facility is exempt from damages caused by a reactor if the accident is deemed to have been triggered by “a grave natural disaster of an exceptional character.”

Needless to say, it can be argued that the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and resultant massive tsunami did possess “an exceptional character.” But counterintuitive as it may seem, the question must be asked whether the earthquake and tsunami were in fact no more than the proximate cause of this ongoing tragedy.

Recently, documents have surfaced revealing that as early as November 1971 officials at the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) expressed concern about design flaws in the General Electric-made, Mark I nuclear reactors of the type installed at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. In a memo dated Sept. 25, 1972, Joseph Hendrie, the top safety official at the AEC, agreed that elements of the reactor design could contribute to a core meltdown in the case of an accident. However, he refused to take action because doing so “could well mean the end of nuclear power. . .”

Not only this, by 1976 three General Electric nuclear engineers had become so concerned about the dangerous shortcomings of the GE design that they publicly resigned their highly paid positions. Nonetheless, their warnings went unheeded.

Prime Minister, I certainly am not an expert in nuclear plant technology or design. Nevertheless, when I learn of evidence as described above it is clear to me that before any decision is reached on who should pay for the current damages there must be a thoroughgoing investigation of the inherent safety (or lack thereof) of the Fukushima nuclear reactors.

If it is determined that there were indeed serious design flaws in these reactors, then the next question is whether Tepco was aware of them or not. If they were aware, then why was no remedial action taken before the recent disaster? If they were unaware of relevant publicly available information, what does this say about their professionalism and devotion to the public welfare? And what of GE’s responsibility in having sold Japan inherently dangerous reactors. Can GE claim to have no financial responsibility?

Furthermore, inasmuch as at least one official agency of the U.S. government – namely, the Atomic Energy Commission – appears to have failed to take appropriate action, what responsibility does the U.S. government bear for this disaster?

As an eighteen-year veteran of the U.S. military, I very much admire those U.S. military personnel who have placed themselves in harm’s way to aid disaster victims as part of Operation Tomodachi. In dispatching these troops the American government certainly did the right and compassionate thing. Yet if, as it appears, an agency of the U.S. government failed to act in a manner that might well have prevented this tragedy, what does this say about the nature of the “friendship” that Operation Tomodachi claims to represent?

I have no doubt, prime minister, that in the coming weeks both Japanese and American financial and political circles will put great pressure on you to absolve Tepco, GE, the U.S. government and so on from any responsibility for the current nuclear disaster.

Yet, if those who appear at least partially responsible for this tragedy are exonerated without a thorough investigation of the facts, the Japanese people as a whole will be forced to bear the financial burden for their own victimization. Is that fair? As someone who cares deeply about Japan, prime minister, I can only express the fervent hope that you will not rest until all of the relevant facts are known, and the responsible parties identified and held accountable.

BRIAN A. VICTORIA
Yellow Springs, Ohio