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Beware the safety myth returning to Japan’s nuclear debate via Financial Times

Debate on future energy needs must be wider

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The safety myth idea came to stand for the foolishly simplistic way that nuclear power had been sold to the Japanese public, and, as a consequence, of the way it had been regulated. Back in the 1960s, when Japan’s leaders pitched the technology to a nation that still vividly remembered Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they glossed over the risks. Civilian atomic power was not just safe, they said, it was absolutely, unquestionably, always and no matter what, safe.

Those leaders knew better, of course. But absolute guarantees were the only way to bring the national psyche into line with what were, in an energy-poor country, powerful political and economic incentives.

The strategy worked. Japan ultimately built 54 commercial reactors, and before the Fukushima disaster there were plans for more. But the approach did nothing to make those reactors safer, and arguably made them less so. The need to maintain the myth prompted utilities and the government to dismiss suggestions that standards could be improved. After all, to make something better – to heighten a tsunami wall, to move a crucial back-up generator away from flood danger – would be to admit that it was once less than perfect.

As one post-Fukushima investigation concluded, those in charge were “caught up in a safety myth that deemed a severe accident such as a core meltdown to be impossible, and were not prepared for the reality that a crisis could occur right in front of them”.

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Certainly, the government and utilities have a responsibility to ensure that risks from nuclear plants are vanishingly small, and there are many lessons to be learnt from Fukushima. But one of those lessons was supposed to be that promises of absolute safety are illusory and dangerous.A debate that focuses solely on them elides other important considerations, such as the comparative harm inflicted by fossil fuels, vastly more of which Japan is now burning. And if the pro-nuclear side wins and reactors are again operated based on the safety myth, there is a potentially bigger harm: that the old pre-Fukushima complacency will set back in.

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