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[William Pesek] National debt battles radiation for biggest risk in Japan

In high-tech, hypermodern Tokyo the most sought-after items are decidedly primitive: candles, flashlights, surgical masks and duct tape.

For that, we have more than just Friday’s deadly earthquake and tsunami to blame but also the nation’s shameful nuclear-safety record. It is boomeranging on all of us 126 million Japan residents. What’s freaking us out even more than quakes and tsunamis is the risk of radiation drifting our way.

Yes, it was a huge quake and Japanese officials are working tirelessly and putting themselves in harm’s way to avoid the worst. And yes, Monday-morning quarterbacking is of limited utility with Japan still counting the costs of the tragedy in lives and destruction. Yet Japanese have been put at risk by years of institutionalized neglect.

Neither has the information flow inspired much trust. Government officials say don’t worry, radiation risks are “containable” and at the same time they tell people to evacuate. If we learned anything from the subprime-loan crisis, it’s that anytime a public official uses the C-word it’s time to run for the hills.

Japan’s traumatized masses deserve better from their public officials. One moment, people 10 kilometers from nuclear sites are at risk. The next, the hazard zone is 20 kilometers wide.

Here, Tokyo Electric Power Co., which is working to avert a meltdown in Fukushima, is the poster child of distrust. In 2002, whistleblowers revealed abuses that forced it to say it had faked reports on repairs since the 1980s. Its chairman and president resigned and all 17 of its reactors were temporarily shut by government inspectors.

Amidst the latest accident, in Fukushima, Tokyo Electric is facing criticism for responding slowly. What a shock! This latest fiasco further damages the industry’s reputation after a string of embarrassments over the last 12 years.

Tokyo Electric is flushing three reactors at the plant with water after cooling systems failed and a blast tore through a containment building. It comes less than four years after a quake shut another plant run by the utility and in the wake of industry scandals involving faked reports and fatal accidents.

In 1999, two workers were killed by radiation exposure at a fuel processing plant. They actually used buckets to estimate a uranium mixture that caused a blue flash of light and a chain reaction that went unchecked for 20 hours.

In 2004, a burst pipe at a reactor run by Kansai Electric Power Co. killed five workers. The burst-pipe section had been omitted from safety checklists and hadn’t been inspected for 28 years. Then 2007 brought fresh revelations that utilities had regularly doctored safety records.

Unfolding events at Fukushima aren’t the first quake-related accident for Tokyo Electric. In July 2007, a 6.8 magnitude temblor caused a fire and radiation leaks that shut down the Kashiwazaki Kariwa nuclear plant, the world’s biggest. The government had failed to conduct sufficient checks for seismic faults at the site.

On Monday, the U.S. 7th Fleet repositioned its ships and aircraft away temporarily from the Fukushima power plant after detecting low-level contamination in the area. It was a reminder of how many Japanese are learning more about risks from non-Japanese government officials than their own elected ones.

It’s easy to go for the cheap joke here ― comedian Gilbert Gottfried did. The voice of Aflac Inc.’s duck mascot got fired after posting messages on Twitter that made light of the deadly flooding here in Japan.

Economists see little to giggle about. They are focusing on that other tsunami: debt. Will the untold hundreds of billions of dollars needed for rebuilding efforts tip Japan toward the bond crisis pundits have long feared? For the average Japanese, today’s worry is Fukushima.

Japan is the world’s most earthquake-prone country. The wisdom of littering it with nuclear power plants is now more questionable than ever.

Lacking oil and natural resources, Japan relies on 54 nuclear reactors to supply 30 percent of its power. Prime Minister Naoto Kan says exports of nuclear technology from Toshiba Corp. and Hitachi Ltd. could help revitalize the economy and meet greenhouse-gas emissions targets.

While that’s all very important, risks to Japan’s masses deserve more attention. Unless Japan figures out how to construct nuclear plants out of rubber or put them on top of massive shock absorbers, it should stop building them. The nuclear industry needs to plan better for tsunamis, too.

This is a call to arms for scientists to find an alternative to more plants. Japan’s regulatory framework also breeds dangerous conflicts of interest. Those writing the rules are too often the same people doing the surveys and signing off on the inspections. Those days are over. If nuclear sites were better inspected and maintained, we would all be better off.

The world should heed Japan’s experience as it mulls a so-called nuclear renaissance. How’s that for a contradiction in terms? If anything is clear, Japanese have even less trust in nuclear power today than a week ago.

The U.S. had its Hurricane Katrina. Then-President George W. Bush’s fumbled reaction in 2005 dented America’s global standing. The devastation following the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 also raised questions about much-hyped China. The eyes of the world are very much on Kan and other top Japanese officials.

Last week’s quake, the worst ever recorded in Japan, was huge indeed. Yet we would all feel better off if regulators and corporate executives had operated more competently and transparently in years past. It’s vital that they act more responsibly in the days ahead.

By William Pesek

William Pesek is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. ― Ed.
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