The Japanese cabinet decided this week to transfer the country’s nuclear safety agency from the trade ministry, where it nestled in a department also dedicated to the expansion of nuclear power, to the environment ministry, where, at least in theory, there is some chance that its operations will not be subverted or manipulated by Japanese energy firms. After nearly half a century of producing nuclear power, Japan has finally separated regulation from promotion, but the move may well have come too late to restore public trust.
In a country where people have to use their own detectors to check on local radiation levels which the government failed to release, where information about threats to life and health after Fukushima dribbled out so haphazardly, and where a nuclear industry apparently unabashed by that disaster has been resorting to dirty tricks to influence public debate, mere bureaucratic rearrangement will hardly suffice. The latest blow to confidence came when it was reported last month that workers at the Kyushu Electric Power Company had been asked to pose as ordinary citizens with no connection to the industry and send emails calling for the resumption of operations at two nuclear reactors in southern Japan to a televised public hearing. Investigations showed this was standard behaviour long before Fukushima, with other power companies admitting that they had sent employees to make up as many as half of the participants in similar forums as far back as 2005.
As if this were not bad enough, two of the utilities said they were urged to do so by the nuclear agency itself. It was this revelation which appears to have led to the decision to fire three top officials, including the head of the agency, and then to reorganise and move it.
Japan’s polarised industrial culture, which veers between the heedless pursuit of short-term interest, on the one hand, and confessions, tears, and apparently heartfelt apologies when things go wrong, on the other, makes it an extreme case. But the same factors are at work in every country that has a nuclear industry. The impulse to minimise the inherent risks of the most dangerous technology man has ever tried to master, the tendency to conceal or downplay accidents, the assertion that each succeeding generation of plants is foolproof and super safe, and the presumption, so often proved wrong by events, that every contingency has been provided for, all these have been evident again and again. Angela Merkel, one of the few leading politicians who is also a scientist, saw the writing on the wall. Her decision to phase out nuclear power has revived a global debate which has been dormant for far too long.
The Guardian Editorial, 16 August, 2011