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Nuclear regulators leave Kan to fill in the blanks

Dear Prime Minister Naoto Kan,
I applaud your call to suspend operations at the Hamaoka nuclear power station (in Shizuoka Prefecture). It’s good news following on the heels of the public resignation of your senior nuclear safety advisor, Toshiso Kosako. In the wake of his tearful protest against raising the radiation exposure limit for children in Fukushima, it looks like you’re now taking a step in the right direction.

When you’re navigating uncharted territory, like the unprecedented disaster at Fukushima, guidance from experts in the field can be a lifesaver. But if the roadmap to safety they give you is a blank piece of paper, hold on because it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

A blank piece of paper is kind of what the minutes of a special March 11 Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) meeting looked like. The meeting was held in response to the series of devastating events that occurred that fateful day.

If I’ve read those meeting minutes correctly, the NSC commissioners met for just five minutes. The document doesn’t say who was at the meeting, but if all five commissioners attended, that would leave one minute of brainstorming time for each of them. You’d think they would have spent just a little more time putting their heads together to figure out a solution to one of the worst nuclear power plant accidents ever. I guess they thought it best just to leave the fate of the nation in the hands of Tepco (Tokyo Electric Power Co.) for a while.

In their next session a week later, the record simply notes that the country’s other major nuclear regulatory body, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), had notified the NSC about disclosing the radiation threshold values for nuclear power reactor emergencies. I guess that made everyone feel a lot safer, or not, because once again they were out the door in five minutes.

Finally on March 25, their meeting minutes document was something that needed a sturdy staple to hold together. At nearly 10 pages it had all the earmarks of a regulatory opus magnum. Surely this was the blueprint to nuclear safety that the nation cried out for.

Then again, maybe it wasn’t. The minutes show that a huge chunk of time was spent nailing down the exact spelling of the computerized spread sheet program Excel. There had been some previous clerical disaster in which somebody omitted the letter “c” from the brand name and they were dead set on getting the whole mess straightened out. As radioactive plumes drifted overhead, to add a “c” or not to add a “c” appeared to be the big question of the day at the Nuclear Safety Commission.

This burning issue and other kanji character bugbears chewed up much of the 26 minutes the commissioners spent together that day. I’m no scientific genius, but if I were a commissioner of anything, I’d leave the spell checking to my assistant.

I know the work of Japan’s nuclear safety commissioners goes beyond their weekly meeting, and that they are probably every bit as haunted by this nuclear nightmare as everyone else. We are all together in this raging battle against this menacing monster and, to borrow a well-worn phrase, “failure is not an option.”

Against the backdrop of a sky cluttered with radioactive clouds, it’s clearer than ever that nuclear power is not an option we can live with safely.

If ever there were a time to rid the planet of these ticking atomic time bombs amongst us and commit to harnessing safe renewable energy resources, this would be it. Instead of standing idly by while the country’s nuclear power regulators waste precious minutes, Mr. Kan, you could make this your finest hour.

J.T. CASSIDY
Yokohama

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