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Abe’s Japan is blind to scary nuclear reality

Forget Abenomics. Ignore Shinzo Abe’s efforts to rejuvenate Japan’s diplomatic and military clout. Look past the quest to rewrite the constitution. History will judge this prime minister by one thing alone: what he did, or didn’t do, to end the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl.

It’s mind-boggling how disengaged Japan’s leaders have been since their “BP moment” ― the March 2011 near-meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant. Abe’s predecessors Naoto Kan and Yoshihiko Noda virtually ignored the radiation leaks and spent fuel rods sitting 217 kilometers from Tokyo. In December, Abe became the third prime minister to pretend all was well at Fukushima after a devastating earthquake and tsunami that flooded the plant.

The official line on Fukushima is depressingly familiar: The folks at Greenpeace International are trouble makers bent on scaring Japanese; the alarmists at the World Health Organization should mind their own business; the international news media needs to discover decaffeinated coffee. Nuclear power is clean, safe and ― most important, now that a weakened yen has driven up energy bills ― cheap.

Reality made an inconvenient reappearance last week. Mounting evidence that radioactive groundwater is gushing into the Pacific Ocean forced Abe to admit that plant owner Tokyo Electric Power Co. Inc. isn’t up to the task of containing the disaster. Under international pressure, he pledged the government would “make sure there is a swift and multifaceted approach in place” to stop the leak.

Pardon me for doubting Abe’s seriousness. It’s not just the sketchiness of the suggested remedy: freezing the ground around Fukushima, a tactic scientists fear will prove inadequate. It’s not the fact that nuclear regulators remain more focused on restarting reactors than on neutralizing the one that’s polluting North Asia. It’s not that no one at TEPCO has gone to jail or been shamed. (BP Plc’s former chief executive officer, Tony Hayward, was fired and sued over the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.) TEPCO is leaking something far worse and lying through its teeth. Yet it hasn’t been nationalized, and its executives remain in their offices.

No, my real worry is that official Japan is still stuck on “how” Fukushima become synonymous with Chernobyl, not “why” it happened or “what” it means for the world.

The “how” is the stuff of the gods, according to conventional wisdom. The event Japanese call 3/11 was an act of the heavens that no one could have foreseen. There was no way to plan for it, no way TEPCO could have known not to place all of its backup generators in the same place underground, just steps away from the sea in a tsunami-prone nation.

This storyline ignores the “why.” Fukushima was a preventable, man-made disaster stemming from the worst conformist tendencies of Japan Inc. Look, if executives got together globally and created a Hall of Shame for the greedy, corrupt and clueless along them, TEPCO would deserve its own wing. All Enron Corp. and Bernie Madoff did was manufacture fake profits. TEPCO fudged its safety record and put the lives of tens of millions of people at risk.

But it takes a village to breed such a corrupt and dangerous system. TEPCO got away with its negligence for years because of the cozy ties between power companies and the regulators, bureaucrats and researchers that champion the industry ― the “nuclear village.” Backed by its connections, money and control of the media, TEPCO has brazenly continued to cook its radiation data for the last two and a half years. It matters little that the government is finally commandeering TEPCO’s cleanup: The government is TEPCO.

Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party is blinded by dollar signs. In May, Abe visited Turkey to help close a $22 billion deal for Japan to build nuclear power plants in that seismically active nation. That kind of cash makes power companies virtually untouchable. And it raises doubts about TEPCO’s admission that 300 tons of water laced with strontium and other particles is pouring into the Pacific each day. One can’t help but wonder if the leak is of a much greater magnitude.

It’s time for the government to face reality and do six things: decommission Fukushima; invite independent auditors from overseas to assess the magnitude of the damage; admit the surrounding area might not be safe for inhabitants, fishing or farming for decades; scour the world for innovative solutions; break up the nuclear village; and level with the Japanese about cleanup costs that will be in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

That brings us to the “what.” Fukushima is a growing embarrassment for Japan on the international stage. Oceans don’t have boundaries. Radioactive traces have been found in bluefin tuna ― not to mention on secondhand cars and auto parts imported by Russia from Japan. Another earthquake ― a live possibility ― could damage Fukushima anew or take out another reactor between now and the 2020 Summer Olympics that Tokyo hopes to host. The world won’t give Japan a pass twice on what would have been a perfectly preventable disaster.

Analysts are rating Abe on his success in cleaning up Japan’s finances. Posterity will judge him on whether he cleaned up the mess TEPCO and the nuclear village have created. 

By William Pesek

William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. ― Ed.