Is there a way forward for Japan’s post-Fukushima fears?

Radiation and reason
Cover art: Spencer Weart’s “The Rise of Nuclear Fear”; Wade Allison’s Radiation and Reason

The survivors of Japan’s Tohoku Earthquake have suffered so much. The former residents of the Fukushima exclusion zone are bearing the additional stress of nuclear fear. Polling of former residents indicates that fewer than one-half may be willing to return. There is so much radiation fear and distrust of government.

Radiophobia is common in Japan, probably explaining why the government enacted radiation standards much lower than scientifically justified; and why politicians nourished expectations of nuclear power perfection. Combining this history with the mismanagement of the Fukushima accident has put Japan in a very unfortunate position:  Japan’s economy is damaged by importing fossil fuels to replace the almost 30% of their electricity generation that has been closed. And the widespread radiophobia may prevent restarting the majority of Japan’s 43 operable reactors. In addition to Japan’s economic stress, the fear of nuclear catastrophe is causing Japan to share their fear globally – as unnecessary carbon emissions.

How to help the Japanese people shift to a realistic view of the benefits vs. risks of restarting their nuclear fleet?

Consider the segment of the American population with similar fears of apocalyptic nuclear accidents. If you wanted to form a Presidential Commission to evaluate and report on the entire range of energy options – who would you nominate that could influence the fearful? Who would I nominate? George P. Shultz is an easy choice. If he accepted, the rest of the recruiting would go well. My next call would be to Burton Richter. Besides his deep competence and gravitas he has long experience with just this sort of public policy responsibility, and practical experience with getting things done in government. As an example Burt has been a key contributor to the California Council On Science And Technology project “Policies for California’s Energy Future”. My third pick would be Jane Long – who coincidentally was the very effective leader of the enlightened CCST project.  

Surely Japan has public figures of similar skills and stature. Who are they? How much impact could such an “Japan Energy Commission” have on public fears? Could such a commission get the ear of Japan’s heavily anti-nuclear media?

A complementary approach could be to adapt Robert Stone’s concept of building a high-credibility story around “switchers”. If Robert himself could be enlisted to this project he would be a powerful agent of change. I’m sure he could train a Japanese counterpart. As a director Robert knows how to organize the effort to tell a compelling story. There must be Japanese anti-nuclear campaigners who have switched?

Regarding funding of such a project, moving Japan towards a pragmatic energy policy isn’t just for Japan’s benefit. Earth’s atmosphere will obviously say “Thank you” for reduced Japanese emissions. Emissions aside, Germany plus Japan’s nuclear shutdown is having a big negative impact across the globe. If Japan restarts most of their nuclear fleet that will send a very helpful signal.