Abe must act fast with nuclear credibility at stake

Abe must act fast with nuclear credibility at stake
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

TOKYO - In May, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe signed a deal with Turkey to build a nuclear power plant on the Black Sea coast.

Buoyed by that success, he headed for the Middle East late last month to push Japan's nuclear know-how to oil-rich countries worried about accidents in nuclear plants built by their neighbours.

But unless Mr Abe first resolves his own nuclear crisis at home - the one bubbling again over the tsunami-stricken Fukushima No.1 plant - he might as well forget about reviving Japan's nuclear energy sector, much less exporting nuclear technology to other countries.

Unnerving reports have emerged recently about the flow of radioactive water from storage tanks at Fukushima into the Pacific Ocean, with blame falling on the negligence of operator Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco).

Although Tepco knew of the leaks, it did not acknowledge that contaminated water could be flowing into the sea until just after polls for the Upper House in July, which saw Mr Abe calling on sceptical voters to give nuclear energy another chance.

All but one of Japan's 50 reactors have been shut down. So, without resolving Fukushima, one wonders how Japan can in all honesty peddle its nuclear technology abroad, including to countries in South-east Asia.

Mr Abe on Tuesday showed resolve in licking the Fukushima problem, announcing that his administration would take over the initiative to contain the radioactive water leaks and unveiling a 47 billion yen (S$604million) plan to do so, including building a wall of ice beneath the stricken plant.

He went so far as to say that his government "needs to resolve the problem by standing at the forefront", and that it would "do its best and take the necessary fiscal action".

This is a good start.

Leaving it to Tepco to deal with the problem by itself is no longer an option. As Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said bluntly, "the situation has become Whack-a-mole".

It was a reference to the arcade game where a player hits the heads of mechanical moles using a mallet as they pop up randomly from holes.

The issue is not only hurting Tepco's credibility at home and abroad, but that of Japan too.

Now that Mr Abe has finally stepped up to the plate, there are some other things he can do:

Demand greater transparency

Tepco has promised to ask for advice from domestic and foreign experts. Reports in the international media say foreign countries with nuclear energy sectors, including Russia, have offered their expertise.

But the Japanese media has played down such reports.

Mr Abe needs to put an end to this cat-and-mouse game and make it clear that he will not tolerate it any further.

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