Nuclear safety studies torpedoed

Of all the shocking revelations over the past year about nuclear power plants in Japan, the recent revelation that the head of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency canceled safety studies in 2006 is one of the most exasperating. The agency responsible for nuclear safety should have expanded the studies, not cut back, and then gone on to implement proposals and improve oversight of nuclear safety.

According to media reports, the head of the regulatory agency in 2006 canceled studies into establishing larger no-go zones around nuclear power plants in the event of a disaster. At a meeting with members of the Nuclear Safety Commission, the head of the agency at that time said safety studies would only cause more people to worry about the safety of nuclear power.

Safety studies do increase public awareness of problems, and awareness often brings worry. However, the studies that were canceled were intended to be realistic assessments of the dangers of nuclear power plants. Better assessment would have helped in the aftermath of the disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant last year. The studies were also intended to provide sensible planning for disasters by bringing Japanese regulations up to international standards. Public concern is an unfortunate but inevitable side effect of realistic understanding and sensible preparations.

If disaster management plans were insufficiently pursued, as it now appears, NISA and the NSC can rectify that by being forthcoming about current plans. Public anxiety over safety issues at nuclear plants is not likely to disappear anytime soon.

NISA needs to explain steps taken in the past, correct those that were insufficient and make the public aware of the changes that have been made.

Continuing to hide or suppress information about the dangers of nuclear power plants and evacuation plans is unacceptable. The public needs to know why such studies were canceled or suppressed. But more importantly, the public needs to know what studies are currently being undertaken to make better plans for worst-case scenarios and to know exactly what is being done to upgrade and enforce all nuclear regulations.

Citizens have too long trusted elected officials and bureaucrats to watch after their best interests. Few people could have imagined the lack of planning that led to confusion in the aftermath of the triple disasters in Tohoku last year. That should not be repeated. The same problems are less likely to happen again if nuclear power safety authorities take immediate steps to establish comprehensive studies and substantial measures for handling future disasters.