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Fukushima nuclear disaster

Only through transparency can the Japanese public’s faith in nuclear power be restored

The trial of former officials from the operator of the Fukushima plant will provide the opportunity for answers on how to improve safety and oversight

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 March, 2016, 1:03am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 March, 2016, 1:03am

The backlash against nuclear power in Japan has largely been down to a lack of transparency by electricity firms. There is a chance that the shortcomings can be fixed now that three top former officials of the Tokyo Electric Power Company, the operator of the plant at Fukushima damaged by the earthquake and tsunami almost five years ago, will face trial. The criminal case is the first over the reactor meltdown that led to the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986, forcing the evacuation of 140,000 people and rocking confidence in the industry. That will be heartening for Japanese who have been demanding accountability, but it will also provide the opportunity to answer outstanding questions about the disaster and point to ways of how to improve safety and oversight.

Tepco’s ex-chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata and two former vice-presidents have been charged with failing to implement safety measures. Several workers at the plant were hurt and dozens of people at hospitals in the area died during the evacuation. A lack of evidence and the unlikelihood of a guilty verdict had been cited by prosecutors for not pursuing the case. But under Japan’s judicial review system, a panel of ordinary citizens had twice determined that the three should face trial, compelling officials to push ahead with the case.

The panel’s decision reflected continuing concerns and suspicions about the nation’s nuclear industry. All of Japan’s reactors were shut down after the March 11, 2011, accident. Amid anti-nuclear protests, government plans to increase national power output from atomic energy from 30 per cent to 40 per cent were dashed and opinion polls continue to show eight out of 10 Japanese remain opposed. Only three of the more than 50 reactors have since resumed operation.

Investigations by Tepco and an independent parliamentary commission have failed to apportion blame and detail lessons learned. Among recommendations were that laws on nuclear energy be revised, better industry oversight was necessary and the crisis management system should be reformed. The industry’s vested interests and lack of transparency were noted.

Tepco was aware of the risks of a tsunami at Fukushima, but did not have the necessary precautions in place. International safety standards were also not followed. Now that charges have been laid and a trial will take place, those questions can be dealt with. Only with answers and transparency can public confidence in the nuclear power sector be restored.