Will Fukushima Reactor Crisis Finally Sour Japanese on All Things Nuclear?

Are nuclear energy and Japan, always an uneasy alliance, headed for divorce? Has Japan finally had it with all things nuclear. First, of course, it’s the only nation in the world that was attacked by nuclear weapons. Then, reports the New York Times, its nuclear energy industry — all 17 nuclear plants comprising 55 reactors — has been beset with difficulties and the inevitable cover-ups. From the Times:

Over the years, Japanese plant operators, along with friendly government officials, have sometimes hidden episodes at plants from a public increasingly uneasy with nuclear power.

In 2007, an earthquake in northwestern Japan caused a fire and minor radiation leaks at the world’s largest nuclear plant, in Kashiwazaki City. An ensuing investigation found that the operator — Tokyo Electric — had unknowingly built the facility directly on top of an active seismic fault. [Unknowningly? -- RW] A series of fires inside the plant after the earthquake deepened the public’s fear. But Tokyo Electric said it upgraded the facility to withstand stronger tremors and reopened in 2009.

Last year, another reactor with a troubled history was allowed to reopen, 14 years after a fire shut it down. The operator of that plant, the Monju Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor, located along the coast about 220 miles west of Tokyo, tried to cover up the extent of the fire by releasing altered video after the accident in 1995.

As for the damaged reactors Fukushima Daiichi and Daini, you may have heard that, in Chinese, the word crisis is represented by two characters that represent danger and opportunity. While not precisely true, it’s certainly a useful axiom and one that might apply to this situation. The Times again:

Benjamin Leyre, a utilities industry analyst with Exane BNP Paribas in Paris . . . said that politicians in Europe and elsewhere would almost certainly come under increased pressure to revisit safety measures.

“What is likely to come will depend a lot on how transparent the regulators in Japan are,” Mr. Leyre said. “There will be a lot of focus on whether people feel confident that they know everything and that the truth is being put in front of them.”

With the advent of Peak Oil — or for those constitutionally capable of admitting its existence, a perceived need to free the West, or at least the United States, from its dependency on the Middle East for our fossil fuels — receptivity to nuclear energy is on the upswing. Still none have been built in the United States for decades. Fukushima may have a bright side: it could help channel renewed sympathy for nuclear energy toward wind, solar, and other alternative energies.