National

Japan needs a national debate on nuclear risks, ex-U.S. regulator says

Kyodo

Japan needs to hold a national debate on what nuclear power-related risks are acceptable before it restarts reactors idled after the 2011 Fukushima meltdowns, a former top official with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said.

“There has to be a national dialogue on the level of risk acceptable for people, because in the end, the people of any country determine” what risks they are willing to accept, said Charles Casto, who advised Japan on behalf of the U.S. government in the wake of the March 2011 Fukushima No. 1 meltdown crisis.

“The elected officials may believe they have control of that, but . . . the people will stand up if they don’t accept the level of risk,” he told a press conference in Tokyo on Wednesday.

All of Japan’s 48 commercial reactors are offline, but the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is eager to restart them.

Public concern over safety, however, remains high more than three years after the triple meltdowns tainted parts of Japan with radiation and robbed thousands of people of their land and livelihoods.

Casto said that an “imbalance of power” between Japan’s utilities, the government and the nuclear regulator was one of the root causes of the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl in 1986.

“Most of the expertise in the power rested in the hands of the utilities,” while the government, the regulator and the country’s emergency response emerged as structural flaws, he said.

After the nuclear crisis, the suspect regulator, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, was dismantled for replacement by the independent Nuclear Regulation Authority, which was established in 2012.

The NRA is busy screening reactors for safety under the toughened guidelines drafted in the wake of the crisis. These guidelines must be passed before a reactor goes back online.

While the undermanned NRA is in charge of judging the readiness of the plants, Casto said plant operators themselves should be actively involved in ensuring safety.

“I know there is not a lot of appetite for sharing power with the utilities, but we have to do that if there is to be a future (for Japanese nuclear power generation),” he said. “The utilities have to take on their responsibilities.”