The No. 3 reactor at Hokkaido Electric Power Co.'s Tomari nuclear power plant went offline May 5 for routine maintenance, leaving Japan without a single running reactor.
Japan, which had the third largest number of reactors in the world, becomes the first country to stop nuclear power generation altogether.
This would be a welcome development if it were a result of a sincere and effective policy response to the popular will to make Japan nuclear-free.
But the fact is that Japan has stopped production of electricity with atomic energy because the government's plan to restart idled reactors as early as possible has provoked angry reactions from the public, especially local governments around nuclear power plants. The outlook for the resumption of reactor operations remains murky.
The situation has been created by growing public distrust of the government and other players involved.
INCREASING TARGETS OF CRITICISM
Japanese society's confidence in the safety of nuclear power generation was shaken to the core by the catastrophic accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant last year.
It was further eroded by the disastrous way the government and the operator of the plant responded to the accident, which included: confusion over the hydrogen explosions that took place after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that crippled the plant's cooling system and also over the failure of emergency vents to prevent such explosions; vague explanations about reactor meltdowns; and delays in disclosure of data provided by the System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information, a system to forecast the spread of radioactive materials after a nuclear accident, and also in evacuation orders.
The series of errors and missteps committed during the days and weeks following the crisis revealed the disturbing fact that organizations that had been promoting nuclear power generation, as well as the people responsible, seriously lacked the basic abilities to prepare for and deal with nuclear accidents.
Most damaging to the public confidence in nuclear power was the spread of the perception that these people and organizations were trying to hide facts and information inconvenient to them.
Public criticism went into overdrive amid concerns about the health hazards posed by possible exposure to radiation. It was not only the utility and politicians that came under suspicion, but also other elements of the "establishment," such as bureaucrats, scientists, experts, the business community and the mass media.
The nuclear accident has transformed society, which needs to be built on confidence, into a caldron of distrust.
The establishment, however, has failed to recognize the depth of public distrust.
This is evident by the government's attempt to bring idled reactors back online.
THINKING FROM SCRATCH
Many Japanese are not necessarily sympathetic to the radical movement toward a nuclear-free society in the immediate future.
Surveys by The Asahi Shimbun have indicated that people are concerned that a power shortage may adversely affect their lives and the nation's economy.
Still, they appear to think it is necessary to take a fresh, hard look at nuclear power generation and all related assumptions in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster. That's hardly surprising.
It is clear what kind of steps the nation's policymakers should have taken.
For one, they should have articulated their will to reduce nuclear power facilities, especially old reactors that have been in service for 40 years or longer. These include the Mihama and Tsuruga plants in Fukui Prefecture, and the Hamaoka plant in Shizuoka Prefecture, which is located in an area that scientists say will be hit by a huge earthquake.
Secondly, they should have demonstrated their commitment to making serious efforts to figure out how to safely dispose of radioactive waste, such as spent nuclear fuel and decommissioned reactors.
In anticipation of power shortages due to the shutdown of reactors, policymakers should have started taking steps last year to establish a secondary power market incorporating plans based on cuts in electricity consumption.
The Noda administration, however, has failed to make any meaningful change in the reality of nuclear power generation in Japan, not even a reform of the deeply flawed nuclear safety regulation. That's all the more maddening because it pledged to reduce the nation's dependence on nuclear power.
As for the issue of restarting idled reactors, the administration made the mistake of believing that a decision to restart the reactors would eventually win public support because of concerns about a power crunch, as long as it took formal procedures based on stress tests on reactors.
Unless it changes its basic attitude toward the formidable challenge, the administration cannot hope to remove public distrust of nuclear power generation and the government's nuclear power policy.
There is an enormous gap between the public sentiment toward nuclear power generation created by the Fukushima meltdowns and the government's attempt to ride out the crisis without changing the old ideas and assumptions concerning atomic energy.
Japanese people's distrust of politics, of course, is nothing new.
That was clear from an international survey concerning public trust in politics that covered people in some 140 countries. Among 37 major countries, mainly members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Japan was ranked 36th in terms of public trust in the government and 31st in terms of people's evaluation of the abilities of their nation's leaders. Japan's positions in these rankings were on the same level as those of Greece.
The survey in Japan was conducted in 2008, when the nation was governed by the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito.
But has anything really changed in Japanese politics since the Democratic Party of Japan came to power in 2009?
If it has, it has been for the worse. It seems as if the DPJ-led government's deeply confused response to the nuclear accident has even further damaged public confidence in politics, probably to an almost irreparable extent.
TAKING RESPONSIBILITY FOR NATION'S ENERGY FUTURE
In a commentary published in The Asahi Shimbun on Aug. 25 last year, writer Genichiro Takahashi pointed out the poverty of politics underscored by the fact that political leaders could only discuss key policy issues from the viewpoint of the current systems.
"I wonder whether they have learned nothing from what happened in this country?" he asked.
One politician who is astutely tapping into the public frustration about politics is Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, who has been harshly criticizing the government over the issue of restarting idled reactors.
But there can be no real progress in politics if voters pin their hopes solely on the leadership of an individual politician.
We need to think on our own about how we can reduce nuclear power plants and carve out a new energy future for our society, and then try to build a broad consensus on these issues.
That's the lesson we should learn from the consequences of many decades of leaving the development and execution of nuclear power policy entirely to the government.
The same can be said about the problem of low-dose exposure to radiation. Scientists are bitterly divided on the effects of radiation as they are discussing issues related to decontamination and food safety standards.
These are actually issues to which there is no right answer.
All we can do is to learn as much as possible about the issues and choose what we regard as reasonable ideas and proposals.
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Our next editorial will discuss how to create a forum for constructive debate on such issues.
--The Asahi Shimbun, May 5
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