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Japans Nuclear Regulatory Failures

Air Date: Week of

Aileen Mioko Smith has sounded the alarm over the risks of nuclear energy in Japan for over 3 decades. (Photo: W. Eugene and Aileen M. Smith)

Nuclear activists in Japan claim the proliferation of nuclear reactors has gone unchecked for too long. Aileen Mioko Smith, director of the Japanese watchdog group, Green Action, tells host Steve Curwood that the crisis at Fukushima is indicative of a larger problem of nuclear oversight.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth - I’m Steve Curwood.

GELLERMAN: And I'm Bruce Gellerman. Over the years, Japan’s nuclear industry has been plagued by a record of falsified safety reports, covered-up accidents, and what critics charge is a too-cozy relationship with government regulators. So activists say they’re not surprised by the catastrophe at Fukushima.

CURWOOD: Aileen Mioko Smith is one of the leading opponents of nuclear energy in Japan. She’s director of Green Action, an NGO based in Kyoto. When the disaster struck, Aileen Mioko Smith was visiting the United States, and she spoke to us from San Francisco.

The Tokyo Electric Power Company is one of the world’s largest utilities head office. (Wikimedia)

SMITH: Japan has 54 nuclear power plants and they are all located in seismically active areas. And that’s been a problem, and citizens have addressed that. But what the electric utilities and government do, in coordinating with each other, underestimates potential seismic activity of a potential nuclear power plant site, and then the government rubber stamps it and then they get to build the plant. So this plant should never have been built in Fukushima.

CURWOOD: Explain for us the relationship between the nuclear industry and the government in Japan.
SMITH: Ok, well there’s quite a bit of collusion. Just for example, Japan plans a long-term energy policy every five years, and the last one was headed by the Tokyo Electric president - he was the chairperson of that deliberation committee, so you kind of get the picture here.

CURWOOD: Now this isn’t unusual in Japan, is it? I mean, the whole zaibatsu economic system, where there’s close cooperation between the government and industry, also is involved in the nuclear industry it sounds like.

SMITH: Yes, that’s correct. But over the last few years, it’s now an issue that that’s not democratic. And so, for example, this current long-term plan is not headed by the Tokyo Electric president, but they’re still pulling all the strings.

In fact, this accident is fallout from that. This is very much a human-created accident. And the reason I say it’s a human disaster is that, you know, natural disasters happen - but if you didn’t site a nuclear power plant there, you wouldn’t be having this accident at all.

CURWOOD: How truthful and forthcoming do you feel the government of Japan and industry is being about the accident that’s going on?

SMITH: Well, I don’t think they are being truthful. I think the big problem is that the government needs to calmly explain all the facts to the people, rather than - quote, unquote - “protecting them” or “hoping for the best.” The reason for that is that if you’re patronizing of citizens, they are kept in the dark, yet you can’t protect them from reality – the reality that happened.

CURWOOD: Let’s talk about how industry and government have been forthcoming about the risks that have been posed by these reactors over the years. What have they said and done?

SMITH: Okay. What they’ve said is that it’s not necessary to have an evacuation plan beyond ten kilometers, which is six miles, and local residents and all of us have fought that continually at every site. But they insisted that the worst accident that could happen - the radiation would stop at the six-mile limit. So the crisis right now is we’re way behind on evacuation, and it’s because the original paperwork says six miles.

Aileen Mioko Smith has sounded the alarm over the risks of nuclear energy in Japan for over 3 decades. (Photo: W. Eugene and Aileen M. Smith)

With evacuation, I think that the role of public authorities is to take the responsibility - that you tell people to evacuate, and then maybe later you’re criticized - ‘look, you know, we didn’t have to do that,’ and there was so much turmoil and, you know, there may have even been accidents, but the potential danger was so great. It’s a difficult decision. I think they have to weigh it and they haven’t weighed it properly now.

CURWOOD: To what extent has industry or government tried to conceal problems in the nuclear plants?
SMITH: Well Tokyo Electric’s been notorious - there was a big scandal nine years ago when they falsified their own self-inspection data. Just for example, this containment in Fukushima - this is the containment that shields the reactor - the pressure has to be lower so that it prevents leaks from the containment.

And it wasn’t functioning properly, so okay, government officials are on one side of the plant measuring the situation, and then on the other side of the containment, Tokyo Electric people are using a pump to extract the air from the containment - to make it look like it has lower pressure. So that was a big scandal and they did other falsification - and they were reprimanded by the government. So publicly, there’s this reprimand - you know, the regulators are regulating and slapping the wrists of Tokyo Electric, but underneath, they’re just completely coordinated. That’s the problem.

CURWOOD: So every five years in Japan, I understand, there is this nuclear policy review - what are the odds that the next review will make some changes?

SMITH: Well I think that they’ll be forced to make some changes. The public opinion was really deep, scrutinizing nuclear power safety a lot more now - I mean, phenomenally more than before. But, we don’t know, I mean, you know, they’ve got huge PR agencies, but we’ll see what happens.

CURWOOD: What’s the role of activists like you in a situation like this - what’s the role that you’re playing there?

SMITH: So the role of activists is to warn the public, and we have been doing that. But, you know, it’s like…we did our best, and what else can you say - we weren’t successful. But, you know, right now, we feel like this has been a total failure, and yet we still have urgent things we need to do, and that is that there’s power plants southwest of Tokyo called Hamaoka, and the seismic situation there is much, much more serious than Fukushima. So right now, what we have to tell the public, now that they’re listening, is that Hamaoka has to be shut down, and really quickly.

CURWOOD: Your family is in Tokyo right now - what concerns do you have about their safety?

SMITH: Well I have concerns, but I haven’t told
them…I haven’t told them, ‘You should leave,’ because then I don’t know where they’re going to go. And my aunt’s very old, and my uncle is very old, and it’s difficult. But I do have cousins with children. I don’t know - I mean, I’m struggling with what to do about that.

CURWOOD: Aileen Mioko Smith is the director of the Kyoto-based group Green Action. Thank you so much.

SMITH: Thank you for having me.



Green Action

Click here to listen to an extended interview with Aileen Mioko Smith


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