Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) is deservedly slagged as the Keystone Cops of nuclear power, and conjures up images of Homer Simpson, the iconic nuclear safety inspector in “The Simpsons.” Perhaps it ought to adopt as its mascot Ocnus, the Greek god who personifies futility.

It’s all so bad that, on a visit to Tepco’s stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant last Monday, industry minister Toshimitsu Motegi even compared the company’s cascade of snafus to a game of “whack-a-mole.”

Since the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, and three reactor meltdowns at the Tepco plant that followed, the utility has had a lock on the Pinocchio awards for corporate dishonesty as it has consistently misled the public about the crisis.

At least that was the case until it finally admitted in October 2012 that it had been lying about everything regarding Japan’s Chernobyl. Back then, Tepco finally disavowed its own June 2012 whitewash report — and it now acknowledges that human error led to the three meltdowns.

In addition, Tepco has also admitted that, even though it knew there was a risk of a massive tsunami, it rejected adopting sensible safety countermeasures, failed to train workers properly to respond to an emergency, and decided against practicing evacuations because it might be bad PR.

The Asahi Shimbun newspaper, surely speaking for most residents of Japan, recently fumed, “The utility’s glaring ineptitude with crisis management was noted right from the start of the Fukushima disaster. How and why could Tepco have kept repeating the same blunders over and over?”

This outburst was prompted by revelations about massive amounts of radioactive water leaking from the plant into the Pacific Ocean, explaining why 94 percent of Japanese believe the Fukushima accident has not been brought under control — and why 31 percent want to abandon nuclear energy as soon as possible, with an additional 54 percent supporting a gradual phaseout.

Almost 2½ years after the three reactor meltdowns at Fukushima, Tepco is still groping in the dark while 150,000 people remain displaced from their homes and the total cost of the nuclear accident is already approaching $100 billion. Ouch!

Entrusting the cleanup to the plant operator was a colossal mistake because it left critical decisions up to the same industry insiders who compromised nuclear safety before March 11, 2011, and subsequently mismanaged the crisis.

And guess who is removing 400 tons of spent nuclear fuel rods from Reactor 4 at Fukushima? Not to jinx Tepco, but a miscue in this delicate operation would certainly take everyone’s minds off the leaking radioactive water problem because, in a worst-case scenario … well let’s not worry about that potential cataclysm because the cavalry has arrived. Belatedly, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has promised the government will take care of things.

Long after the rest of the world, Tokyo’s finest finally lost faith in Tepco’s ability to manage the ongoing crisis at Fukushima, 200 km up the road. Yet still they hope to win the 2020 Olympics, though radiation probably trumps Madrid’s economic woes and Istanbul’s political clashes.

Abe intervened because the protracted Fukushima fiasco imperils his plans to fast-track restarts of idled nuclear reactors. This is risky politics, though, because the government now “owns” Fukushima but, aside from paying the bills, it is not clear what it can do to stop Tepco lurching from crisis to crisis. At least it is now tapping international expertise, doing what the International Atomic Energy Agency urged Tepco to do this past February to no avail.

The dirty secret is that the energy generated by the two operating reactors at Kansai Electric Power Co.’s nuclear power plant at Oi in Fukui Prefecture has been surplus to needs — and in any event, in September they will be shut down for routine maintenance for six months. A Japan free of nuclear energy is coming. So why are reactor restarts deemed essential in a nation that has got by without needing any nuclear power through two sweltering summers?

The answer, in short, is damage control. Abe had to intervene because the lingering nuclear crisis imperils his pronuclear agenda. The government wants to shift the narrative from Tepco’s incompetence, and radiation still spewing into the environment, to the government offering reassurances that it will now bring the situation under control; it has lots to prove.

Team Abe worries that, without “cheap” nuclear energy, Abenomics might run out of gas. Taxpayers and nuclear refugees know it’s not such a bargain, but the nuclear village of pronuclear advocates is banking on the government to fend off antinuclear public opinion and rev up the reactors. In vocally and repeatedly backing reactor restarts, Abe is also exerting political pressure on the new nuclear watchdog agency, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), to get with the program.

Moreover, Abe sees great potential in overseas nuclear power markets and needs reactor restarts to back his sales pitch. His growth strategy calls for tripling infrastructure-oriented exports to $300 billion by 2020 — and nuclear technology exports are key to achieving this target.

Clearly, Japan is deeply enmeshed in the global nuclear-industrial complex; Toshiba owns Westinghouse while Hitachi and Mitsubishi have tie-ups with General Electric and Areva. Hence, Abe is an active pitchman for Japanese nuclear reactors — but if Japan itself begins phasing out nuclear energy, potential clients might look elsewhere.

Earlier this year Japan secured a $22 billion contract with Turkey (another quake-prone country). It has also signed a nuclear technology agreement with the United Arab Emirates and is eyeing sales to Brazil, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia. In addition, negotiations are ongoing with India to enable Japan to sell its technology there, and Abe lobbied hard on behalf of Japan’s nuclear exporters at a June summit of the Visegrad countries (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia).

But given that Japan upped its renewable energy capacity by the equivalent of two nuclear reactors’ output in the past year alone, why not shift more resources into renewable energy and rely on relatively clean liquefied natural gas (LNG) as a transitional energy source while phasing out nuclear? After all, smaller scale, dispersed energy generation is more cost effective, contributes to disaster resilience and boosts local economies.

According to Andrew DeWit, a renewable-energy expert at Rikkyo University in Tokyo, this logic explains why there is a green revolution afoot, one that is happening because private firms and local governments know it makes sense. In the last year alone, some $20 billion has been invested in renewable-energy projects, while smart-grid and energy-efficiency initiatives are gaining momentum.

But restarting reactors remains crucial because Washington, as reported in the Wall Street Journal in May this year, is pressuring Tokyo to do so.

Japan has an overall stockpile of 150 tons of plutonium produced by its nuclear reactors, 44 tons of which is separated and weapons-useable — enough for 5,000 Nagasaki-type atomic bombs. This further undermines Washington’s dubious stance on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons if Japan is not using the processed fuel in reactors, and doesn’t plan to do so. And as Shigeru Ishiba, secretary general of the governing Liberal Democratic Party, argues, “Having nuclear plants shows to other nations that Japan can make nuclear weapons.”

Point taken — but meanwhile let’s get those spent fuel rods moved without mishap and safely tucked away if there is such a place in which to do that.

Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

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