Japan's Careful Return to Nuclear Power

Start me up.

Photographer: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

Five years after the nuclear plant meltdown at Fukushima, Japan has begun the controversial process of restarting its other reactors. The challenge for government and industry remains no less critical, however: to continually improve safety, lest they further undermine public support for what should be a reliable, climate-friendly fuel source.

Before Fukushima led the government to close all the country's reactors, Japan got almost 30 percent of its electricity from nuclear. Now it's importing about 84 percent in the form of coal, oil and liquefied natural gas. Some 45 new coal-fired power plants are scheduled to open, threatening to increase carbon emissions and worsen lung-damaging air pollution in Japan. The yen's slide since 2013 has made those fossil-fuel imports especially expensive, driving up the cost of electricity for consumers.

While use of renewable power in Japan, especially solar, is growing at a healthy clip, it remains under 15 percent -- not enough to make up for the loss of nuclear power anytime soon.

That shouldn't be a problem. Under the right conditions, nuclear power should be able to provide a significant share of Japan's clean energy, and safely. The meltdown at Fukushima has done more than anything in history to make the Japanese people question the safety of nuclear power, but the government has been working to allay their concerns. The Nuclear Regulation Authority has been given a strong mandate and detached from the pro-nuclear economy ministry. Improved hiring rules have reinforced its independence from Japan's powerful bureaucracy. Indeed, the slow pace of reactor restarts thus far suggests the agency takes its responsibilities seriously.

QuickTake Nuclear Power

Yet the Nuclear Regulation Authority still needs more staff and resources, as well as outside voices and expertise. And while the International Atomic Energy Agency has praised Japan's new regulatory framework, it has also warned that inspectors need to be given a freer hand to do their work properly.

To regain the public's trust, Japan's nuclear companies also need to fortify their own safety cultures. This has to start with accepting accountability for Fukushima. Executives from plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. have finally been indicted for professional negligence. Now employees throughout Tepco and other nuclear companies need to be empowered to ask questions and challenge superiors.

Some common fears are probably overblown. Concerns about radioactive seafood, for example, have yet to be borne out. Only one confirmed case of cancer linked to Fukushima radiation has so far emerged. 

Nevertheless, Japanese authorities need to respect and address people's understandable worries. Ignoring them will only breed resentment and raise the risk that inevitable stumbles will set back the whole process of restarting reactors and, perhaps one day, commissioning new ones. By demonstrating that all reactors can be operated safely, the government, regulators and power companies can see that nuclear again provides reliable, emissions-free power for Japan.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.