Safety first: Japan and its nuclear industry ignored a key value
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In March 2011, an earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan killed 15,000 people and inflicted billions of dollars in damage. It was one of the greatest disasters in modern Japanese history.
Another casualty of that dark day was Japanese confidence in government and its uncritical belief in the competence of its nuclear power industry. The tragedy forced a shutdown of Japan's nuclear reactors until safety checks can be completed.
Now that some plants are reopening, many Japanese, like the thousand who marched in Tokyo on Monday, are telling the government that they still oppose the restart of the industry.
The fresh protests echo the concerns of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission. It recently released a harsh and unsparing report, commissioned by the parliament, which called Fukushima a foreseeable "man-made disaster" resulting from collusion between government, the facility's operator and regulators. It indicted Japanese culture for "reflexive obedience" and a "reluctance to question authority."
The report accused the system in charge of nuclear oversight of conflict of interest, saying it promotes nuclear power while trying to regulate it. As a result, the commission said, the Japanese government, along with regulators and the plant operator "failed to correctly develop the most basic safety requirements."
The 600-page report called for a tough approach to future accidents, including monitoring public health and "a detailed and transparent program of decontamination and relocation."
It is hard to imagine a more damning assessment. Even if parliament adopts all the recommendations, it will be a long time before the Japanese begin to trust those who operate and regulate nuclear power plants -- and this where the 50 main reactors provide 30 percent of the nation's electricity.
The lesson is not exclusive to Japan, however. All nations must put safety first when dealing with systems and technologies that can take a heavy toll when things go wrong.
First Published July 18, 2012 12:00 am