Photo: Getty Images; Illustration by Bloomberg View
Photo: Getty Images; Illustration by Bloomberg View

The governing coalition led by Japan’s pro-nuclear Liberal Democratic Party is predicted to win a majority in the July 21 Upper House elections.

That prospect might alarm the almost half of all Japanese citizens who say they don’t want to restart the 48 nuclear reactors that remain offline for safety checks after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that triggered a catastrophic meltdown. Even now, engineers are struggling to contain the radioactive water seeping into the groundwater under the crippled Fukushima Dai-Ichi facility.

Yet nuclear power, which before the tsunami generated almost 30 percent of Japan’s electricity, is reliable, safe and climate-friendly, and should remain part of the country’s energy mix. The challenge Japan faces is to tear down the “nuclear village” -- the collusive nexus of government and industry that drove the country to pursue atomic energy at the expense of its citizens’ safety.

The relationship was so cozy that even months after the disaster, more than 50 ex-government officials were still working at the Tokyo Electric Power Co., Fukushima’s operator.

Last September, Japan’s previous government took an important first step by creating the Nuclear Regulation Authority. Unlike the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency that it replaced, the NRA is not housed within the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which aggressively promoted Japan’s nuclear industry. The new agency has been granted more bureaucratic independence and has strict rules governing personnel transfers -- once you work there, for instance, you can’t go back to your ministry. Already, the NRA has declared that the Tsuruga reactor of the Japan Atomic Power Co. sits on an active seismic fault, a finding that could keep the plant closed and lead to the company’s collapse.

As economically painful as it may be to let this decision stand, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would be wise not to meddle, or do anything else to undermine the NRA’s independence. He should instead, as a recent report from the Federation of American Scientists recommends, increase the NRA’s size: With half as many reactors as the U.S. to watch over, the NRA has just one-eighth the head count of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The NRA also needs “technical independence” and can achieve this by recruiting experienced personnel untainted by ties to the nuclear village. In the short term, the best approach would be for the agency to exercise maximum transparency on hiring and to offer employees strong whistle-blower protections.

The NRA’s new safety standards are high enough that it will take years for some nuclear facilities to comply. Meanwhile, Japan is under tremendous economic pressure to restart reactors. A weakening yen has made its increased imports of fossil fuels even more expensive. In the year that ended March 31, the country’s nine utilities with atomic plants ran up losses totaling 1.59 trillion yen ($16 billion). Greater investment in energy efficiency and in solar and other renewable power sources could ease the pressure.

Abe missed a chance by devoting less than 1/50th of his stimulus spending to energy efficiency: Globally, Japan ranks fourth in efficiency, behind the U.K., Germany and Italy. And whereas Japan was second in solar facility installations in 2005 and had half the world’s installed solar capacity, by 2012 it had slipped to fifth in new facilities, behind Germany, Italy, China and the U.S. A renewed push in these areas would give Japan more time to get its nuclear reactors back online safely.

Although public sentiment against nuclear power remains high, outright protests against it have diminished over the last year. The issue has played only a small role in the Upper House election campaign (notwithstanding the surprising, or perhaps just clever, admission by Abe’s wife that she, too, is anti-nuclear).

Nevertheless, Japanese politicians dismiss the public’s nuclear concerns at their peril. As Richard Samuels of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has argued, the Fukushima meltdown amplified certain social and political changes in the country: the increasing tendency of local governments to question edicts from Tokyo, a growing spirit and capacity for volunteerism, and stiffening intolerance of backroom deals between business and regulators.

These broader developments offer Japan perhaps the best hope for a future free of nuclear accidents. Public pressure is needed to ensure that the Nuclear Regulation Authority has enough freedom and support to get reactors safely started again.

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