Japan's Nuclear Nightmare

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I had a terrible dream last night. I imagined it had been 29 months since a giant earthquake and tsunami wrecked the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant, the reactor continued to spew radiation into the sea just 135 miles away from my home in Tokyo -- and the Japanese government was standing by and doing nothing. Wait! Sadly, until earlier today, that was reality.

The real nightmare for me and the 126 million people who reside in Japan was that it took Prime Minister Shinzo Abe this long to step in to help Tokyo Electric Power -- the plant's owner -- to deal with tons of radioactive groundwater spilling into the Pacific Ocean. Stopping the leakage could cost tens of millions of dollars; Tepco, which continues to insist that the contamination is minor, would clearly not have been eager to pony up.

Really, a little government intervention would have been even nicer two years ago, when Naoto Kan occupied Abe's office. Back then, scientists and academics urged Japan to nationalize Tepco and decommission that plants it ran with such abandon and arrogance.

Intervention would have been more helpful even one year ago, when Yoshihiko Noda was prime minister. Experts tried to get Noda to take seriously evidence that radioactive discharge from Fukushima was exceeding legal limits. They nudged him to hold someone, anyone, at Tepco accountable. Prosecutors had arrested and charged Olympus Corp. executives for cooking the accounting books. Why not the folks at Tepco, whose flouting of safety rules almost cooked Tokyo? Literally -- most people still have no idea how close we came to losing the world's biggest city in March 2011.

It also would have been great if Abe himself had cared more about nuclear safety than dollars when he assumed the premiership in December. His focus was on restarting the 52 reactors taken offline out of an abundance of caution after the earthquake. Never mind that most Japanese want them to remain mothballed. Japan's potent ``nuclear village,'' the nexus of power companies and pro-nuclear regulators, bureaucrats and researchers, packs way too much political firepower. This nuclear-industrial complex is one of the nation's biggest advertisers, which keeps the Japanese media in line. That's partly why international campaigners like Greenpeace received so few column inches as they presented report after report showing radiation levels far above what Tepco would admit. (Tepco was eventually forced to come clean.)

So, is Abe's sudden interest in Fukushima's radiation mess for real? Well, it has to be at this point. Aside from the risk to his approval ratings, Tokyo is actively vying for the 2020 Summer Olympics. International Olympic Committee officials might find the threat of protests in Istanbul preferable to jokes about Tokyo hosting the Chernobyl Games.

The first thing Abe must do is shift theNuclear Regulation Authority's focus away from evaluating the safety of atomic plants for restart, back to the fast-growing crisis of toxic sludge flowing into the sea around Fukushima. Really folks, first things first. Let's first make sure children living within a 100 mile radius won't develop cancer 10 years from now.

Abe also should nationalize the Fukushima site. Yes it will be messy, sure it will cause a tempest in financial circles when investors and creditors fight over money and indeed it will put Japan's government into uncharted territory. But Tepco isn't up to the task of managing life-and-death matters in what's arguably the world's most seismically-active nation. Each time I read quotes by one of their executives explaining how the company learned from its mistakes and is being reborn, I check and make sure I'm not reading TheOnion.com.

Sometimes comedy is the only reasonable default at times like this. Tepco's logo, after all, looks suspiciously like Mickey Mouse (no joke). So I'll ask: Who put Homer Simpson in charge of Japan's nuclear safety? For such a rules-based, technologically proficient nation, Japan's nuclear safety record these last 15 years seems no sounder than that of the fictional Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, where Homer is head of safety. Only, this is no laughing matter.

So better late than never, Mr. Prime Minister. We Tokyoites are glad you are finally on the case. But please excuse us for having our doubts that a year from today, things in Fukushima will be any safer. Welcome to our nightmare.

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To contact the author on this story:
Willie Pesek at wpesek@bloomberg.net