Man-made lessons for nuclear power

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 July, 2012, 12:00am

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Weekly protests by thousands of people outside Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's official residence culminated earlier this month in the biggest anti-nuclear rally since the Fukushima disaster last year. Organisers say about 170,000 packed a Tokyo park to protest against the government's decision to restart the country's nuclear reactors. They were galvanised by an extraordinary report of a Japanese parliamentary expert panel that the nuclear explosion and meltdown of three reactors was fundamentally a man-made disaster rather than a natural one caused by an earthquake followed by a tsunami. The issue of nuclear safety has divided a heavily nuclear-powered nation.

Investigations into catastrophes triggered by natural events tend to acknowledge man's powerlessness against the forces of nature. This report blamed 'ingrained conventions' of Japanese culture, such as reflexive obedience, reluctance to question authority and insularity. Citing lobbying by nuclear firms and a safety-myth mindset among executives and regulators, it said that the disaster could have been foreseen and prevented, and its effects mitigated. Ironically, though criticising the failure of the power plant operator, regulators and the government to put public safety first, the report follows another cultural convention - saving face - by stopping short of actually blaming anyone. That said, we would be foolish to think it does not have implications everywhere that nuclear power is used, including China. After all, whenever a nuclear accident has occurred, investigations have cited human failings.

Nuclear power is a clean, efficient alternative to fossil fuels. Fukushima is a reminder that full transparency about operations and risk management is critical to public confidence in it. If anything good is to come out of the catastrophe, the Japanese government must set an example by showing it has learned the lessons of the disaster.