By William Pesek
There's nothing like an earthquake to ring in the New Year. That thought crossed the minds of many Tokyoites on Jan. 1 as a magnitude 7.0 trembler shook us out of our holiday slumber.
Really, if there's any developed nation that was glad to see 2011 end, it was Japan. The radiation crisis caused by the March earthquake and tsunami was but the biggest news in a year that included deepening deflation, credit downgrades, the resignation of a fifth prime minister in as many years and an Olympus Corp. scandal that spooked investors the world over.
As the ground shook on the opening day of 2012, the immediate concern was the nuclear facilities at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s plants in Fukushima. Thankfully, the quake didn't cause fresh damage -- this time.
But what about next time? In a June Asahi newspaper poll, 74 percent favored Japan over time decommissioning all 54 reactors. Actions by the government, reinforced by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's press conference today, suggest the opposite is afoot. Japanese want a nuclear-free future, and yet the government is back to coddling the power industry.
Why the disconnect? Japan's nuclear-industrial complex is every bit as powerful as the nexus of business and the military in the U.S. There's just too much money involved, and Japan's "nuclear village" is circling the wagons. The moment Noda's predecessor, Naoto Kan, announced plans to rein in the industry's incestuous ties with government bureaucrats, his premiership was over.
Japanese deserve better. Consider, too, that only six of the 54 reactors are operating anyway. While strains will be expected, Japan is proving it can live reasonably well without the reactors the government claims are so vital to the economy.
Arguments that nuclear power is efficient, cost-effective and clean would be more persuasive if Japan weren't so seismically active. No one is saying turn off all the reactors today. Yet unless engineers can build them out of rubber, elevate them on huge shock absorbers and address every potential risk -- including terrorism -- deemphasizing reactors should be a priority for any Japanese leader.
If Japan is looking for a growth industry, it could be found in an explosion of innovation and investment in nuclear alternatives.
(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist.)-0- Jan/04/2012 15:15 GMT