The Japanese democracy has been less rambunctious than that its American counterpart. But the government’s decision there to resume nuclear power generation in the wake of the March 2011 Fukushima disaster is causing hundreds of thousands of people to pour into the streets.

Sentiments on all sides run deep. But proponents of restarting some of the nuclear facilities are emphasizing that the country cannot replace 25 percent of its electric power generation overnight and that all of the nuclear reactors are going through rigorous new stress tests to try and ensure that they will survive massive natural events. And since May, when nuclear energy there has been shut down, the country has increased its fossil fuel imports. That is releasing more emissions and is more costly to homeowners and businesses.

“We made a political decision after carrying out strict stress tests and getting through procedures in the safety committee and agency,” says Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, in a televised interview, according to news reports.

In May 2012, Japan closed the last of its 54 nuclear units that were operational prior to the events in March 2011. But fear of energy shortages has prompted Japan to give permission to restart two of the country’s nuclear energy units, one of which just revved up in western Japan and which was met by massive protests, estimated at 200,000 people.

Those opponents are not just fearful of accidents but are also pushing cleaner energy forms. They are urging the Japanese government to move more aggressively into greener energies, pointing out that in the months following the disaster that the nation cut its energy consumption by 15 percent. They are also saying that the power structure there has yet to compensate the people for their losses, or to take all necessary precautions to prevent the spread of radiation.

Perhaps the most powerful weapon in their arsenal is a recent report by the Japanese Parliament, which said that much of the problem can be attributed to human error. True, the 9.0-magnitude earthquake on the Richter scale and the subsequent tsunami were devastating events. But that report released on July 4th goes on to say that the cozy relationship that Tokyo Electric Power Co. had with its regulators there has put the people at risk.

Cozy Relationship

According to the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission’s Chairman Kiyoshi Kurokawa, the accident should have been foreseen and therefore it “could and should have been prevented.” The Tokyo University professor emeritus goes on to say that if the relationship between the regulated and the regulator would have been at arm’s length, the fallout from the disaster could also have been mitigated. 

“Across the board, the Commission found ignorance and arrogance unforgivable for anyone or any organization that deals with nuclear power,” the study says, which was first reported by Bloomberg news.

Those conclusions will now be debated within nuclear circles, as well within Japan itself. But it would appear certain that the people there will let their voices be heard in ways that have been anathema to such a polite and ordered culture.

For their part, Japanese government officials are saying that during the Fukushima saga that they didn’t have enough reliable information and that they didn’t want to relay anything erroneous. An independent review board based in Japan, however, found otherwise. The panel notes that while leaders there prevented a worst-case scenario, they were not as forthcoming as they should have been.

What now? A more cohesive international strategy is required — one where technological and safety features are universally shared through multilateral treaties. Currently, 435 reactors exist in 30 countries that generate 14 percent of the globe’s electricity, says the World Nuclear Association. And more are on the way: China now has 26 nuclear reactors under construction and is planning six more by 2020. Russia is building 10 more. At the same time, India and Pakistan are moving forward as is Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.

“The relevance of these accidents and related damages are not restricted solely to the technical and operational collapse of nuclear reactors and nuclear power plants,” says Yoichi Funabashi, chairman of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation. “They also highlight a governance crisis involving corporations along with municipal and central government agencies, as well as something inherent in the way Japanese citizens think.”

The Japanese people are rightfully timid and deserve a more open dialogue. But such communication works both ways. Each side’s sentiments should be incorporated and while nuclear energy may not expand there, it is still unlikely that Japan’s existing nuclear units will fade to black.


EnergyBiz Insider is named a 2012 Finalist for Original Web Commentary presented by the American Society of Business Press Editors. The column is also the Winner of the 2011 Online Column category awarded by Media Industry News, MIN. Ken Silverstein has been named one of the Top Economics Journalists by Wall Street Economists.

Twitter: @Ken_Silverstein

energybizinsider@energycentral.com