As we enter into a new year in which last year’s greatest event is still, dreadfully, uppermost in the mind of everyone in Japan, let’s pause to think hard about the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, the tsunami it triggered, and the release into the environment of radioactive substances from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

Since then, Japanese society has turned its attention — in the government at all levels, the media, educational institutions, artistic fields — to a single question: How can the Japanese people rediscover the sense of accomplishment and hope that sustained them for decades following the end of World War II in 1945?

The fact is, however, that this question cannot be seriously addressed before another is answered: Can Japan, a country so prone to seismic disaster, move ahead in the 21st century while still maintaining nuclear facilities that may cause even worse radiation-related disasters in the future?

What is the risk of another Fukushima-type catastrophe, perhaps on an even more frightening scale, taking place — and is that risk worth taking?

I turned to an expert on risk, Woody Epstein, whose title is Manager of Risk Consulting at Scandpower Inc., a worldwide company headquartered in Oslo, and with offices in Yokohama.

“There are statutory limits regulating core-damage frequency (CDF) at nuclear power plants all over the world,” explains Epstein, who describes himself as neither pro- nor anti-nuclear. “The CDF limit for a single nuclear power plant is once every 10,000 years. If your CDF is greater than that, you are in violation. My main concern is the release of radioactive material into the environment.

“The Swiss, with their four plants, have the best attitude on safety in the world. They don’t need an accident or a government regulator. They said to me, ‘We think about the safety of our friends and families … we do this because we live here.’ “

So, why aren’t regulators and power plant operators in Japan equally scrupulous and mindful of their “friends and families” — let alone the general public’s welfare both here and far beyond?

With Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco, operator of the crippled Fukushima plant) in the lead, the sway that Japan’s 10 regional electric utilities wield over the politicians, bureaucrats, financiers, academics and captains of the media who together comprise Japan’s so-called nuclear village is, in a word, monumental.

If we are to believe what we are told by people in the mainstream media, steps are being taken to ensure there will be “no more Fukushimas.” But any such safety assurances were all but worthless in the past.

If there was an Ignoble Prize for Prevarication and Coverup, last year’s would go to Tepco for its repeated, official use of the word sōteigai (meaning, “beyond the realm of predictability”) in mitigation of its response to the tsunami that led to the meltdown of three reactors at its Fukushima plant.

Of course Tepco has never yet made any reference to the fact that it failed to follow the Swiss lead by providing completely bunkered, waterproof doors and backup diesel generators and pumps enabling it to keep its reactors cooled to a safe temperature and stabilize the plant even after it was damaged by flooding. And there has similarly been scant mention of the fact that Tepco failed to have in place the means to vent hydrogen safely.

Says Epstein: “The ‘nuclear village’ in Japan just doesn’t know how to be serious about risk and safety.”

He defines “risk” in this way: What things can go wrong; how likely are they to do so; and what are the consequences if they do?

“The in-house study conducted by Tepco in 2006 indicated that a tsunami of 10.2 meters could occur,” continues Epstein, “but they ignored it as something without specific evidence. Yet of course there was evidence, including simulation studies that Tepco performed. Engineers and scientists who make statements such as this have no business running a nuclear power plant.”

This brings us to the crux of the matter: Until such time as the government of this nation can assure its citizens that the people running the nuclear power industry are independent experts who understand the nature of risk and hazard, our fate will remain in the hands of dangerous amateurs who put the aggrandizement of their companies and the gravity of their greed above the welfare of humanity.

So, have Tepco and the other electric power utilities learned a lesson here?

Kansai Electric Power Co. (Kepco) has produced a proposal to erect “tsunami-proof” walls 11.5 meters high at an estimated cost of ¥200 billion to protect nuclear power facilities on the coast of the Sea of Japan in Fukui Prefecture. But Epstein doubts the efficacy of these walls.

“Tsunami walls give a completely false sense of security. Will they hold? Is 12 meters enough? Twenty meters? You just don’t know how high the wave will be.”

In November, some 450 experts from 39 countries met in Paris under the auspices of the Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety “to draw technical lessons from the Fukushima accident.”

One paper presented there — by Harald Thielen, a German nuclear safety and waste-disposal expert, and colleagues — addressed the environmental consequences of the release of high concentrations of radioactive material. Its conclusion struck me as ominous: “The radiological situation for the people of Japan is serious but regionally limited, if no further releases occur.”

I was tempted here to put the last five words in italics. Even if the Fukushima plants produce no further such releases, we are already experiencing contamination of rice, a range of leafy vegetables, milk, beef, tea, shiitake mushrooms and even containers of natto (fermented soybeans) packed in rice-straw bearing traces of radioactive cesium. And early this month it was announced that that potentially lethal substance had been detected in powered milk for babies.

How do you quantify fear? How do you assure people that the food they eat, the water they drink, the air they breathe, the soil they walk on and their children play on are safe anywhere in Japan — when no one can assure the people of this country that nuclear power generation is safe or ever will be?

A seismic event such as the one on March 11, 2011, that led to a plant blackout and the loss of cooling in three reactors could take place under or near any nuclear power plant in Japan at any time.

As of the end of October last year, only 10 reactors out of a total of 54 were operating in this country. Since then, three have gone offline for scheduled inspections, and one more is due to do so in February. With a mere seven reactors working now, there has been no vocal call for restrictions on the use of electricity this winter.

So, are we really to believe that Japan’s electricity needs cannot be met without nuclear power?

Steps should be taken to shut down the remaining operating reactors at a reasonable pace and begin decommissioning every single nuclear power plant in this country. Urgent steps should also be taken to secure additional supplies of natural gas, and to develop and utilize all practicable forms of alternative energy.

In addition, and along with these measures, moves must be made to judiciously deregulate the generation, transmission and distribution of energy so that, beside the big 10 utilities, smaller companies and individuals can begin to provide energy for the nation.

I return to Epstein’s three questions that define “risk”: What things can go wrong; how likely are they to do so; and what are the consequences if they do?

As for the first, almost anything can go wrong in such a seismically active country as Japan. Regarding the second, the answer is clear: The likelihood is far too high to be acceptable. And regarding “what happens if?” … the consequences would border on the catastrophic for life and land in Japan, and quite possibly much further afield.

Tepco should be thanking its lucky stars. The nuclear disaster it has foisted on the country could have been a lot worse.

All the talk last year about rediscovering a sense of hope and accomplishment will amount to nothing but bluster and hot air unless — and until — Japan is made safe from the unacceptable risks and the known certain hazards of nuclear power.

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