The nuclear-plant faults that Tokyo Electric Power Co. tried for years to cover up may not have been serious in themselves, but the effects of the coverups on Japan’s nuclear debate will be catastrophic.

From the beginning it should have been obvious that the entire nuclear industry here has been sitting on a powder keg. Japanese organizations see themselves as tight communities concerned solely with their own prosperity and survival. Mistakes and mishaps were bound to be covered up. And while this might not matter greatly in other industries, it was a formula for self-destruction in the nuclear industry. Eventually word of some serious coverup somewhere would leak out. The delicate balance of public opinion tolerating nuclear power in Japan would collapse.

Japan is not like France, where opinion is mature enough to make a rational choice when confronted with the gains and risks from nuclear power generation. Japanese opinion remains fickle and emotional, rather like that of Anglo-Saxon and other North European societies, which Japan resembles in quite a few other respects as well.

In the name of reducing pollution and increasing safety, nuclear plants across North America and northern Europe are being closed down. The result? Far greater reliance on pollution-heavy, global-warming plants requiring fossil fuels often obtained at great human risk.

Germany, which refuses to rely on nuclear energy in the name of safety etc., ends up having to buy nuclear energy from France. No doubt its antinuclear lobby hopes the wind will be blowing from the north when a French plant explodes.

Australian progressives have not only opposed any hint of nuclear energy; they have also opposed any export of uranium ores, even under firm antiproliferation conditions. In so doing, they gave the former apartheid regime in South Africa the ideal chance to expand its own uranium exports, without any conditions whatsoever being imposed on importing nations.

Japan’s progressives are moving in the same emotional direction. To date the nuclear industry here has been able to rely on paternalistic, soothing noises to lull a feudalistic-minded public into weak approval. But it was inevitable that, as in Britain, Germany etc., activists and citizens movements would emerge to challenge this passive consensus.

When that happened, the quick jump to an informed, French-style consensus would not be easy. Everything had to be done in advance to educate the public and treat it maturely. The industry needed to go literally overboard with firm guarantees of precautions against mishaps.

But in the reports of the several nuclear energy committees I have attended in recent years, all one finds are vapid, sugary assurances of eternal vigilance and safety. Efforts to insert wordings acknowledging that there were risks and that the industry was doing everything to minimize them did not get far.

I tried also to argue how government controls and checks on the industry were bound to be inadequate. Inspections would be casual and insufficient. Inspectors could easily be led astray.

Only people actually working deep down in the industry would know where the skeletons were hidden. They had to be given every chance to speak out. Encouragement for “naibu kokuhatsu” — whistle-blowing — within the industry would be a start, even if the whistle-blowers risked being squashed by the people at the top. Ideally the industry should also have an impartial third-party ombudsman to receive and investigate what the whistle-blowers had to say.

The ombudsman idea got nowhere. The most that happened was belated recognition two years ago that maybe, just maybe, whistle-blowing could be permitted, even though it ran against Japanese tradition and custom. However, given the psychology of most Japanese, it was unlikely that people would risk relationships and careers to expose company mistakes. My suggestion that whistle-blowers should also be rewarded for their efforts was not highly regarded.

Fortunately a man willing to expose Tokyo Electric’s negligent attitude to cracks in equipment did emerge. He had to go all the way up to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry with the complaint to have it heard. Even so, more than a year passed before his complaint reached the light of day, with the company doing everything to obstruct.

The whistle-blower was not Japanese. He was a U.S. engineer from the company that had been contracted by Tokyo Electric to do the inspections. Like the accounting companies involved with the Enron and other corporate scandals in the United States, the inspecting company had reportedly been pressured to sign off on Tokyo Electric’s false reports. The government bodies charged with supervising safety had been happy to accept the contracting company’s reports.

On a committee for evaluating safety controls, I had earlier suggested that the top government officials responsible for safety should be willing to resign if serious lapses were exposed. Only in this way could the public be convinced that the government was indeed serious about safety. This idea was cold-shouldered.

In the recent scandal, the government people have been very happy to condemn Tokyo Electric and to force top resignations there. But as in the Nippon Ham scandal, no one on the government side has accepted any blame.

We are back to business as usual. Japan can begin to say goodbye to the nuclear power industry it created with such effort, and which it needs so much.

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