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.

Show a sense of urgency

The government and Tepco have a long to-do list. Besides having to conduct more stringent inspections, switching to leak-proof tanks and building an ice wall to keep groundwater in place, they have to speed up the decontamination of tainted water now stored in row upon row of tanks.

The water-treatment system to be supplied by Japan's Toshiba is able to remove 62 of 63 different types of radioactive substances in the water.

Once in operation, it could help cut down the huge volume of radioactive water, which has built up steadily as 400 tonnes a day are used to cool the reactors.

But Tepco has so far been unwilling to accept outside assistance, frustrating those who want to see a greater sense of urgency in fixing the myriad problems at Fukushima.

The utility - together with the government - has reportedly refused offers of help from Japanese companies to contain the nuclear accident, claiming a lack of funds.

In a recent radio interview, former Japanese ambassador Mitsuhei Murata, a vocal spokesman for grassroots efforts demanding the abandonment of nuclear energy, underlined the danger posed by Fukushima to the rest of the world.

He pointed to research by the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany, which suggests that contamination from Fukushima may reach the coastal waters of North America in five to six years, though the level of radioactivity would be much diluted by then.

If Mr Abe fails to resolve the nuclear issue soon, he may have to face more than overseas buyers who are reluctant to buy Japanese nuclear technology.

Domestic opposition to nuclear power, already gathering, could well snowball to the point where it becomes politically toxic to be seen promoting this form of energy.

There are already signs that the tide could be turning decidedly against nuclear energy.

For instance, former premier Junichiro Koizumi, who is still popular with the Japanese people even though he retired from politics in 2009, has emerged as an unlikely voice in the call for a no-nuclear policy for Japan.

He recently visited a nuclear-waste processing facility in Finland and returned utterly convinced that Japan should ban nuclear energy at once.

In an interview published in the Mainichi Shimbun daily last week, he said: "If we don't adopt a no-nuclear-energy policy immediately, it will be difficult to do so in future. Currently, opposition parties are in favour of it. All PM needs to do is make a decision."

Or Mr Abe could match action with words and make sure the Fukushima mess is cleaned up - fast.

wengkin@sph.com.sg

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