Commentary fukushima: culture of turning a blind eye

For too long, Japan’s government let Tepco clean up its own nuclear disaster. The failure shows how a cover-up policy leads to disaster.

Wait and see: This fisherman 40 kilometers south of Fukushima has no choice. His government does. Image: ap

No one claims it’s easy to bring Japan’s exploded Fukushima nuclear power plant under control and decommission it. It is a Herculean task. To accomplish it requires not only gigantic financial resources, but also all the expert knowledge available worldwide.

It is all the more unbelievable that Japan’s government has taken the responsibility for this task to the discredited private nuclear power plant operator Tepco. It itself largely stayed out of the disaster management at the reactor.

The conservative government, which has been in office since the end of December, has always made it clear that a nuclear phase-out would not be possible with it. The ruling Liberal Democrats have been closely allied with the nuclear industry for decades; some of their right-wing nationalist politicians are also attracted by the nuclear weapons option involved.

By taking the political pressure off Tepco, this government helped allow the sloppiness, cover-up and not-so-precisely-wanting-to-know to continue. It was precisely this attitude that had led to the disaster.

Sudden intervention

And now? Now the government suddenly intervenes and takes over crisis management. There are only a few days left before a decision is made on the awarding of the 2020 Olympic Games and thus also on Tokyo’s bid and Japan’s national prestige.

Tepco has been allowed to muddle along for two and a half years. Only now did the government discover with surprise that the nuclear company was not only incapable of building leak-free tanks for contaminated cooling water, but could not even measure radioactive contamination accurately. This is because the bandwidth of the measuring equipment used was not sufficient, and the exposure was much higher than assumed.

Unfortunately, in Japan, it is not only the government that cultivates the culture of not wanting to know so accurately. The public and mainstream media have also failed to keep a close eye on the government and Tepco. The result of this lack of public pressure: Even after the GAU, hardly any nuclear critics made it into parliaments and institutions.

The lack of plurality shows how deficient Japan’s democracy still is. Without strengthened democracy and thus also more transparency, it is only a matter of time before the next big problem is covered up.

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