Japan's troubled nuclear industry faces a meltdown of public trust as resignations, coverups and a radiation leak undermine attempts to recover from a recent history of accidents and scandals.
In the space of just five days, the country's biggest power company, Tokyo Electric Power, has admitted concealing dozens of cracks, its senior executives have announced they will step down, and the government's safety authorities have confessed to reacting too slowly to a whistle-blower's tip off.
To top off a dark week, a Tokyo Electric reactor in Fukushima Prefecture, in northern Japan, had to be shut down yesterday, following a discovery that the chimney was emitting more than 100 times the usual level of radiation.
At any time, such examples of mismanagement would be bad news for a country that relies on the nuclear industry for a third of its electricity. But coming just as executives planned to start loading a controversial new fuel, it could prompt a failure of trust in the country's power industry and complicate the government's attempts to secure a stable energy supply.
Nobuya Minami, the president of Tokyo Electric and a pillar of Japan's corporate establishment, said on Monday that he would resign along with several other executives after admitting that his firm had falsified 29 safety reports over a 15-year period starting in the late 1980s. And five of the company's nuclear reactors are to be shut down for government inspections.
"I would like to sincerely apologize for the incident ... which has damaged public trust," said Mr. Minami.
The government's nuclear and industrial safety agency has warned that up to eight reactors may be operating with cracks, but posed no immediate threat. However, even the authorities' integrity has been called into question. The whistle-blower an employee of Tokyo Electric's subcontractor, General Electric first revealed his concerns to the industry ministry two years ago. Only now has the scandal been made public.
"I must say that, from common sense, two years is too long," said Takeo Hiranuma, minister of Economy, Trade, and Industry. "We want to find out why it took so long and do our best to determine how we can make improvements."
Antinuclear activists interpreted the slow response as a sign of collusion in an obsessively secretive sector. "This would not be the first time that the government has helped the industry to try to hide bad news," says Hideyuki Koyama, a campaigner for more openness in the nuclear industry.
Other analysts say Japan sets unrealistically high safety standards. "Tokyo Electric made a big mistake in falsifying data, but it is a problem of excessively strict regulations," says Tsutomu Toichi of the Institute of Energy Economics in Tokyo. "In other countries, these small cracks would not have necessitated a shutdown. But here, the rules say operations must be halted even for trivial matters. As a result, power companies decide for themselves whether there is a safety threat. That is not good."
Japan's nuclear industry has been trying to rebuild public confidence since a 1999 accident at a recycling plant in Tokaimura, a city 100 miles northeast of Tokyo, killed two workers and forced hundreds of thousands to stay indoors.
It suffered a further setback that same year over the country's ongoing attempt to introduce mixed-oxide (MOX) a form of recycled fuel. For Japan, which has no plutonium, uranium, or coal supplies of its own, recycled fuel would greatly enhance the stability of its energy supply during an oil crisis or a future war.
But the MOX program took a blow when British Nuclear Fuels Ltd., one of two companies that Japan contracted to reprocess such fuel, admitted to falsifying safety data for the first batch of MOX that was about to be loaded into a reactor. As a result, the program was delayed for three years.
Last month, BNFL ships started returning that tainted fuel to Britain in a move that was supposed to allow the nuclear industry and the MOX program to make a clean start.
But with the recent rash of negative publicity, the MOX program has been delayed once again. Two of Tokyo Electric's plants in Fukushima Prefecture and one in Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, Niigata Prefecture, were supposed to have loaded the reprocessed fuel, but with their safety now called into question, the company said it could not go ahead with the plan until public confidence had been restored.
That prospect seems increasingly remote. After the latest coverup revelations, Fukushima Prefecture said it could no longer cooperate with the national government's nuclear policy.
Ikuo Hirayama, the governor of Niigata Prefecture said it was unthinkable to proceed with the MOX plan for the foreseeable future. "This is outrageous. We had a relationship built on years of trust, but that trust has now been destroyed in a deplorable manner."