TOKYO - Japan's nuclear power operators have set themselves new safety targets that exceed international standards, but experts and residents still grappling with the fallout from the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster fear the costly exercise may not result in any meaningful improvements.
Instead, they see the move as an attempt to create a new "safety myth" to set the minds of the Japanese at ease.
For instance, the long-term goal for decontamination of areas in a 20km-radius evacuation zone around the crippled Fukushima plant is to reduce the radiation per year to 1 millisievert. That compares to the international standard of up to 20 millisieverts a year when it comes to evacuation areas. A millisievert is a measure of the background radiation a person is exposed to in a year.
It is also a dramatic change for Japan. When fish caught near the Fukushima coast were found to be contaminated after the disaster, Tokyo first set the maximum permitted level of radioactivity at 500 becquerels per kg of wet weight, then reduced it to 100 becquerels.
Both are much lower than the US standard of 1,200 becquerels per kg wet.
But experts say the more stringent standards are costly and may not contribute meaningfully to safety as international standards are already very conservative.
According to scientists, the health risks of eating food contaminated at the international levels are miniscule.
"Of course you can put more and more money into the more stringent standards... it will cost a lot, but not contribute a lot," said Ms Agneta Rising, who heads the World Nuclear Association, an organisation that promotes the safe use of nuclear energy.
Yet, it is this kind of overconfidence that is seen to have exacerbated the Fukushima disaster and its recovery as plant operators and nuclear regulators failed over the years to update safety measures and keep up with advances in technology, such as emergency robots.
Long-time Fukushima resident Arata Owada said that power company Tepco, operator of the Fukushima nuclear plants, had reassured generations of residents during their visits as students that the plants would be safe "even if a jumbo jet were to hit them".
"Fukushima residents were told that the nuclear plants were safe, safe, safe," said Mr Owada, 59, a Fukushima radio announcer and producer.
Since Japan's first nuclear plant went online in 1966, the nuclear industry has spent millions of dollars on public relations, including building on-site visitor centres that became tourist attractions, and advertisements promoting the industry as safe.
So sure were the authorities that Japan's nuclear plants were safe that in the first few days after the March 11, 2011, disaster hit, they had denied that a nuclear meltdown had occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.
The people had also accepted the premise that Japan's nuclear plants were safe, to the extent that the government was able to bring three nuclear reactors online in 1987 as planned, despite the 1986 meltdown in Chernobyl.
But today, more than 130,000 evacuees are still waiting to return home, the Fukushima Daiichi plant cleanup is still under way and it is estimated that the decommissioning of damaged reactors will take some 40 years to complete.
Thus, the Japanese are saying that it is too soon to begin restarting the 48 nuclear reactors that went offline in stages after the disaster.
In the latest survey by the respected Nikkei daily, 55 per cent of respondents oppose the government's new basic energy plan that sees nuclear power as an important component of Japan's needs.
"It is irresponsible of the government officials and operators to push for a restart of the nuclear reactors when they still do not know what really happened at the Fukushima Daiichi plant," said Mr Owada, adding that many callers to his radio programme have the same objections.
Despite their claims to have learnt lessons from the Fukushima disaster, there is a sense of deja vu in the nuclear operators' focus on reforming themselves "to achieve the world's highest level of nuclear safety".
Mr Makoto Yagi, chairman of the country's grouping of 10 electric power companies, said at a recent conference that the new measures aim to prevent "the recurrence of a similar accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant".
But to Mr Malcolm Grimston, who writes regularly on the nuclear industry, the more stringent standards, instead of reassuring people, are sending a message that nuclear energy is dangerous.
To be sure, it is obvious that the operators and the authorities have learnt hard lessons from Fukushima.
There are now more foreign experts on the committees overseeing safety measures, and Japan's nuclear safety procedures are subject to greater scrutiny here and abroad. The new nuclear regulatory body has increased powers and oversight.
Japan has also invested heavily in technology that helps to better protect against earthquakes and tsunamis as well as in developing emergency robots, a technology it lagged in as the nuclear plants were thought to be safe.
Still, there is no room for complacency, Ms Rising told The Straits Times. "It is important to have safety as a target... but do not promise 100 per cent safety because there is no such thing."
This article was published on April 28 in The Straits Times.
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