“Safety myth” left U.S. ripe for nuclear crisis

Leads | By Remapping Debate |

June 29, 2011 — That wasn’t exactly the headline on Norimitsu Onishi’s excellent story published June 25 in The New York Times. Onishi’s reporting was presented under the headline, “‘Safety Myth’ Left Japan Ripe for Nuclear Crisis.” But the issues Onishi raised are begging to be asked in the U.S. context.

(Before reporters turn to a story that provides broad perspective, they would do well to review the terrific recent reporting from the Associated Press on loosened safety rules in the U.S. for aging reactors, on leaks at U.S. nuclear sites, on outdated evacution plans, and on decreeing an extended service life for aging reactors.)

For some of the “how” and “why” questions that still need to be explored, scroll over the highlighted portions of the excerpts from Onishi’s article:

Over several decades, Japan’s nuclear establishment has devoted vast resources to persuade the Japanese public of the safety and necessity of nuclear power. Plant operators built lavish, fantasy-filled public relations buildings that became tourist attractions. Bureaucrats spun elaborate advertising campaigns through a multitude of organizations established solely to advertise the safety of nuclear plants. Politicians pushed through the adoption of government-mandated school textbooks with friendly views of nuclear power.

The result was the widespread adoption of the belief — called the “safety myth” — that Japan’s nuclear power plants were absolutely safe. Japan single-mindedly pursued nuclear power even as Western nations distanced themselves from it…

As the Japanese continue to search for answers to the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, some are digging deep into the national psyche and examining a national propensity to embrace a belief now widely seen as irrational. Because of this widespread belief in Japanese plants’ absolute safety, plant operators and nuclear regulators failed to adopt proper safety measures and advances in technology, like emergency robots, experts and government officials acknowledge.

“In Japan, we have something called the ‘safety myth,’ ” Banri Kaieda, who runs the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which oversees the nuclear industry, said at a news conference at an International Atomic Energy Agency meeting in Vienna on Monday. “It’s a fact that there was an unreasonable overconfidence in the technology of Japan’s nuclear power generation.”

…Japan, after all, is the world’s leader in robotics. It has the world’s largest force of mechanized workers. Its humanoid robots can walk and run on two feet, sing and dance, and even play the violin. But where were the emergency robots at Fukushima?

The answer is that the operators and nuclear regulators, believing that accidents would never occur, steadfastly opposed the introduction of what they regarded as unnecessary technology…

The rejection of robots, Mr. Yoshikawa said, was part of the industry’s overall reluctance to improve maintenance and invest in new technologies…

The deliberate effort to rally Japanese behind nuclear power can be traced to the beginning of the atomic age, scholars and experts say.

…The nuclear establishment — led by Tepco among the utilities and the Ministry of Economy — spent hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising and educational programs emphasizing the safety of nuclear plants. The ministry’s division responsible for nuclear power has budgeted $12 million this year for those programs, said Takanobu Sugimoto, a division spokesman…

In a country where people tend to reflexively trust the government, assurances about the safety of Japan’s plants were enough to reassure even those at greatest risk. In Oma, a fishing town in northern Japan where a plant is currently under construction, Chernobyl made no impression on local residents considering the plant back in the 1980s…

After Chernobyl, the nuclear establishment made sure that Japanese kept believing in safety…

The nuclear establishment also made sure that government-mandated school textbooks underemphasized information that could cast doubt on the safety of nuclear power…

How much has the U.S. Energy Department, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the NRC’s predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission spent — directly and indirectly — on the promotion of nuclear power?

Japan may have been more single-minded over the past couple of decades, but no nation started earlier or has devoted more attention to tamping down public concerns about nuclear power than the U.S. What drives the Obama Administration’s efforts to provide additional subsidy to the nuclear power industry? What is the nuclear power industry being asked to do in exchange?

We ourselves would be careful about statements suggesting a “national propensity” and stick with “national psyche.” Where is the U.S. national psyche on nuclear power, how did it come to be that way, and why are so many in government and in the press so concerned that the public not be concerned?

Have there been any government agency or industry officials in the U.S. who have not expressed confidence in domestic nuclear power technology? If not, why not? And, if so, who are they, and what have they had to say?

The history in the U.S. nuclear industry — as with other domestic industries, from tobacco to automobiles — has been always to deny the existence of a problem and decry new regulation of any type. Tracing that history would help put current debates into context.

Reporters should have no difficulty tracing the U.S. effort in this regard back to the 1950s.

U.S. industry promotion didn’t end with 1950s exhibits on the wonders of safe and miraculous nuclear power, or with the distribution of toys that glowed in the dark in the 1960s. The campaign continues today, as in the advertisements touting the safety of nuclear power heard on every New York Yankees radio broadcast that are sponsored by Entergy, the owner and operator of the Indian Point reactors.

To what extent have U.S. residents living near nuclear power plants remained complacent in the post-Chernobyl, post-Fukushima era? Why?

What are the elements of the “nuclear establishment” in the U.S.? How do power plant operators, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Energy Department, and the Environmental Protection Agency work together? What other government and private interests work in concert with them to minimize public concern about nuclear power plants?

What do U.S. textbooks say? And what does U.S. government-provided information say? Go to any website of U.S. government agency involved in any manner in the regulation of nuclear power and find a determined effort to downplay risk and to engage in misdirection. Ignore comparisons to background levels of radiation (which have doubled since the pre-atomic era), and ignore standards that are not designed as safety standards but instead adopt a triage or cost-benefit approach (evacuate civilian populations only when it is “practical” to do so). At what level of internal radiation exposure (something very different from an external dose) does the U.S. government believe genetic damage, learning disabilities, or other injuries can be caused?


Send a letter to the editor