Originally Published 2011-06-15 00:00:00 Published on Jun 15, 2011
The only way Japan can cope with the current nuclear crisis and emerge strong is by believing in, what critics called as, "idealistic" reforms and plans that may look "impractical" in the short run.
Is Japan dealing with the nuclear crisis seriously?
There has been a lot of skepticism over a recent report provided by the Japanese government to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) ministerial conference on 9 June 2011 over the ongoing nuclear crisis. The Japanese media, for instance, raised concerns over the ability of the report to convince the world that Japan is truly committed to improving the safety of its nuclear power industry. Not surprisingly, some experts have described it as being "idealistic" and "impractical" as the reforms suggested are very ambitious given the current political situation and that the security measures suggested might lead to shortage of electricity supply in the short run.

A closer look at the report, the current political situation of Japan and the political economy of the energy sector, which is effectively monopolised by a very strong nuclear lobby, however, suggests that the country has no other option but to undertake radical reforms, and any kind of obstruction at this crucial juncture can prove fatal in the long run. In fact, though the concerns regarding this report provided do hold base. However, most of the proposals seem unrealistic because of the structural problems of Japan’s polity and the kind of influence that the nuclear lobby exercises on the government.

In such a case, the only way Japan can cope with this crisis and emerge strong is by believing in such "idealistic" reforms and plans that may look "impractical" in the short run.

To start with, the report provides details of what the Japanese government did in response to the disaster and a rigorously compiled list of 28 "lessons learnt". The key areas in which the government feels that it needs to work are - strengthening of preventive measures against severe accidents, enhancement of response measures against severe accidents, and enhancement of nuclear emergency response. It accepts that hydrogen explosion in Fukushima Dai-ichi contributed in worsening the situation and proposed installation of devices to measure the density of hydrogen in the reactors.

One of the bolder ideas that the report proposed was increasing the "independence of each individual nuclear reactor," without outlining exactly how this might be done. It has proposed many more safeguards to prevent another Fukushima from occurring. Before getting into the critique of this report, it is important to highlight that the nuclear disaster in Japan exposed the deep fissures in the politico-economic structures of Japan and the obtrusive role of the nuclear lobby, that has tremendous influence on government policies. Given this fact, the language of this report reflects the determination and political maturity on the part of the Japanese government in accepting its shortcomings - the first step towards working out the modalities of the recuperation process.

As for the practical concerns in bringing about changes in the nuclear sector, there are many. Firstly, the cost of repositioning of existing nuclear reactors at plants with two or more reactors will be exorbitant, and the process will take many years. Secondly, modification in the reactors to measure hydrogen levels in a reactor and prevent explosions will require huge addition of equipment as well as changes in the reactor itself. Not only will this measure take a lot of time and be a costly venture but will require the nuclear companies to come up with different designs for the nuclear reactors. Thirdly, among many other proposals made in the report actions suggested to protect existing nuclear plants from another natural disaster (by diversifying sources of power), will require major changes and modifications in the reactors.

Moreover, even if the measures suggested in the report are strictly implemented, it will reduce the number of reactors by almost a half, as for every two reactors constructed nearby, one will have to be shutdown. This can, in turn, result in reducing the electricity supply by similar proportions, as Japan is not in a position to build new plants. And in a situation when all the reactors are halted till their safety is confirmed, it will take more than a year to get them running again. In this scenario, Japan will have to work out alterative sources of energy, of which it has a severe dearth at the moment. Adding on to these problems is the fact, as put by Goshi Hosono, adviser to Prime Minister Naoto Kan, "The report did not take actual costs into consideration…It presents all the measures the government deemed necessary to ensure safety. A nationwide debate needs to take place over the future of nuclear power." These are very real concerns that need to be addressed without a doubt. However, it is also true that the strong nuclear lobby is hard at work to stop the government from implementing such reforms, which might seem incredible, but are more of a "need" at the moment than just a "want".

There is no getting away with the fact that the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) government led by PM Kan had performed very poorly in managing the disaster. In fact, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center, of the 700 people interviewed, 79 per cent felt that the government performed much below expectations. Not surprisingly, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) based opposition took advantage of the situation and tabled a no-confidence motion against PM Kan, who actually survived the political tsunami despite having dissidents within his party. Suggestions are now pouring in towards formation of a grand coalition between the LDP and DPJ that will be able to deal with the ongoing crisis effectively and come up with "practical" solutions to the problem that the Japanese nation faces today.

(The author is a Research Assistant at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)
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