Commentary | COUNTERPOINT

Don't worry: Team Abe is tackling the nuclear crisis at Fukushima

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

Even if the public remains overwhelmingly skeptical about nuclear safety in general, and anxious in particular about the impact of the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant on the environment, there is reassuring news that we can now rest easy.

In short, after spending its eight months in power studiously averting its eyes from the gathering troubles some 200 km north of Tokyo, Team Abe is now on the job. But can it deliver? The stakes are very high.

Earlier this year, Abe’s environment ministry dealt with nuclear risks by deleting mention of them from its 2013 White Paper. While the 2012 White Paper termed radioactive contamination the nation’s “biggest environmental issue,” a year later the risk just vanished. But the hapless efforts of Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) are a powerful reminder that it’s not quite so easy.

The recent cascade of revelations about radioactive water seeping here and there exposes serious risks and shortcomings, but it is quite likely that more bad news is coming. Nuclear shills endlessly bleat on about how science shows that public concerns about Fukushima are ridiculous hysteria. The only real worry, they say, is worrying.

However, among those “hysterical” citizens there number some 150,000 people who remain displaced from their homes, thousands of farmers and fishermen in Fukushima Prefecture who can no longer earn a living and young women who wonder if, given the radiation stigma, they will ever marry — and whether they should bear children.

What about those massive releases of radioactive water into the ocean? In terms of radiation, they’re about as threatening as 76 million bananas — according to one nuclear advocate. But are they as tasty? At least now we can tell Koreans, who lambast Japan for spewing radiation into the ocean, to vent on the Philippines, Asia’s biggest banana exporter.

So why didn’t Japanese scientists give the nuclear industry and government regulators a red card instead of propagating the myth of 100-percent safety prior to Fukushima? These paragons of knowledge and objective insight showed themselves to be timid careerists who didn’t want to jeopardize their jobs or research funding. Those few who did raise their hands were booted out of the nuclear village and paid for their apostasy; why didn’t their colleagues rally to their defense? So scores of coopted scientists went along with the string of lies and told the emperor that all was well; it took a tsunami-sized mirror to reveal that he’d been naked all along.

Haruki Madarame, former chairman of the Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC), testified in February 2012 at a Diet inquiry that the ace scientists who were supposed to be regulating the nuclear industry sat around making up excuses why Japan didn’t need to adopt more stringent international safety standards.

Although Japan is renowned for its leading-edge technologies, its nuclear-safety czar acknowledged that on nuclear safety it lagged far behind. Madarame also revealed that when power companies didn’t want to obey regulators’ demands, they just ignored them with impunity. Had Tepco installed the multiple-backup power systems his colleagues recommended back in the early 1990s, there might not have been an outage and blackout at the Fukushima plant following the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011 — and so, no meltdowns. Oops.

Tepco had its own team of crack scientists, but little good that did; they produced the June 2012 report that exonerated Tepco of all wrongdoing in the Fukushima debacle. Ironically, though, that scientific whitewash was so lame that even Tepco subsequently repudiated it and issued a mea culpa; guilty as charged. Progress?

Amazingly, almost all of Japan’s utilities admitted to falsifying maintenance and repair data for their reactors over an extended period of time. A lot of scientists had to sign off on those deliberate fabrications. The scientific establishment, whose assessments we are asked to now trust, mimicked the three wise monkeys: See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. And this ethos facilitated Japan’s Chernobyl.

A significant regulatory revamp in 2013 targets lax safety standards, poor industry oversight and widespread concerns about operating nuclear plants in quake-prone Japan. In September 2012, the discredited Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) and the NSC were disbanded and replaced by the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) with a staff of 480 under the environment ministry. But the NRA is more a reorganization than a significant reform, as 460 of its staff were transferred from the NISA and NSC. Thus the same regulators who were working in favor of the nuclear village are still in charge.

Can the NRA nurture a culture of safety and crack the whip on the powerful utilities? The new nuclear-safety czar, Shunichi Tanaka, recently stated that the NRA’s top priority is the safety of reactors, not the operator’s bottom line. Perhaps, but then why did the NRA allow Tepco to cut corners on decommissioning work that compromised safety and led to extensive radioactive contamination pouring into the ocean? Are other cash-strapped utilities also shortchanging safety?

Tanaka is credited with compiling new safety guidelines that came into effect in July 2013 — but whether they prove effective in upgrading safety at Japan’s nuclear power plants depends on compliance.

Problematically, the new safety upgrades — ranging from remote command centers to backup power supplies, higher sea walls and venting filters — focus on hardware. The lessons of Fukushima, however, suggest there’s also a pressing need to upgrade basic worker training and crisis-management skills while nurturing a culture of safety — there are no quick fixes.

Moreover, though evacuation zones now extend to a 30-km radius around nuclear plants, local authorities and utilities remain woefully unprepared for an emergency.

The NRA’s provisional safety assessment in June of the reactors at the Oi nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture is instructive regarding the prospects of improving safety practices in an industry that is used to getting its way.

Finding no urgent problems, the NRA allowed the Oi reactors to remain online until their scheduled shutdown this month. But it is worrying that the plant’s operator, Kansai Electric Power Co., did not fully cooperate with the NRA and dragged its feet on complying with the NRA’s request for a seismic simulation.

Elsewhere, the NRA has determined that an active fault runs directly beneath the No. 2 reactor building at the Tsuruga nuclear power plant, also in Fukui Prefecture, and recommends against restarting it. This decision has been challenged by the plant’s operator, Japan Atomic Power Co., which insists its own scientists know better.

Meanwhile, the nuclear village is ratcheting up the pressure on the NRA to reconsider its recommendation, knowing the government is in its pocket.

In July, based on the new safety guidelines, four utilities applied to restart a total of 10 reactors nationwide. Approval looks likely, despite the Fukushima fiasco, so setting the stage for restarts in 2014.

But can the NRA reform an industry in which lowly Tepco once had the best reputation — and one in which deceit and coverup have been the standard operating procedures?

After all, utilities can rely on favorable assessments by the best scientists money can buy — and the nuclear village now has Team Abe championing its cause. That is precisely why everyone has a right to be worried.

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