The Monitor's View

Japan nuclear crisis: Why even the emperor speaks out

The Japan nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant points to a need to rethink safety design for such technology. Now, with a possible meltdown, Japan, like many countries, faces a crisis of confidence.

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Two things could not be more rare in Japan: The emperor speaking directly to the people in a broadcast and the Japanese openly challenging their government’s dogged commitment to nuclear energy.

But the threat of a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi atomic power plant following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami has now triggered both events. Together, they reveal a crisis of confidence for the Japanese as severe as the nation’s defeat in World War II – even as the world shows its concern for the Japanese victims.

Emperor Akihito spoke Wednesday on live television about the unpredictability of the escalating nuclear crisis and the uncertainty about the number of people lost in the tsunami.

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“I sincerely hope that we can keep the situation from getting worse,” the emperor said. He even offered a prayer for the people’s safety.

His speech was an echo of his father’s radio broadcast in 1945 after Japan surrendered as a result of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“We have resolved to endure the unendurable and suffer what is insufferable,” Emperor Hirohito said.

Endurance is a trait much admired by the Japanese, but the country may be at a breaking point in putting up with its troubled nuclear industry.

A string of radiation leaks and other problems over the years, often followed by official coverups, plus expensive construction delays – and now the Fukushima crisis – could end or curtail Japan’s drive since the 1973 oil crisis to rely on nuclear power for energy independence.

With few natural resources, the Asian island nation has had little choice in building dozens of nuclear power plants to meet its electricity needs. School children are taught about Japan’s energy “vulnerability” and the need to tap the power of the atom. Within a couple of years, Japan hopes to finish a plant that can reprocess spent fuel from reactors into new forms of nuclear fuels, thus allowing it to become independent of uranium imports.

But like Toyota’s recent fall as the world leader in automobile innovation and excellence, the Japanese nuclear industry now faces a fall in its reputation for technological prowess. The Fukushima crisis showed that both government and the industry hadn’t planned for every possible safeguard – although the workers at the plant have admirably worked to contain the situation.

In particular, officials didn’t count on the nation’s biggest earthquake on record knocking out the power grid and then a tsunami flooding the diesel generators that were the prime backup power at Fukushima. This chain reaction of events was an engineering oversight that, in hindsight, seems so obvious and crucial – but was somehow overlooked.

The result: The world’s most advanced country in technology must cope with one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters.

The fallout could be more than radioactive. Other nations less skilled in technology may wonder if they should follow Japan’s lead in buildingso many nuclear plants. The latest reports indicate 29 countries currently operate 442 reactors, with 65 additional plants under construction.

The certainty of safety against nature’s forces may now be gone, even for newer designs of nuclear plants that are judged safer than earlier ones. Yet finding other forms of energy that can provide a stable base load of electricity – other than coal – remains difficult. The onset of global warming may yet compel countries to stick with nuclear.

Still, Japan’s crisis of confidence over one of its prime energy sources will be as significant as the past global crises over nuclear power after the accidents at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986. At rare times like these, even the emperor must speak out, as everyone seeks answers on the future of nuclear power.

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