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Peter Fox-Penner, PhD Headshot

Nuclear Trust

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At the end of April, the New York Times reported that Toshiso Kosako, a senior adviser to the Japanese government, resigned in protest over the government's handling of the Fukushima nuclear plant accident. This is the latest incident in an ongoing climate of accusations that Tokyo Electric Power has not been transparent about the condition of its damaged reactors or the dangers posed to citizens from radiation releases.

This story is a reminder that nuclear energy is unique among energy technologies. No other energy source is capable of causing dangerous conditions over comparably large geographic areas. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill was an environmental calamity covering 2,900 square miles, but we did not have to evacuate every human from the oil spill area or limit their time within the area to a matter of a few hours. Relatedly, no other technology involves nuclear radiation -- a danger whose psychological impacts are greatly amplified by the fact that it is both totally invisible to the senses and highly unfamiliar to nearly all ordinary citizens.

When a nuclear incident occurs, the invisibility and unfamiliarity of radiation makes the general population extraordinarily reliant on the operators of nuclear facilities and their overseers for information critical to their very lives. Citizens' willingness to live with the risks posed by nuclear power is understandably linked to their confidence that the nuclear industry and its government regulators will be honest about safety risks and take adequate steps to protect them. If they believe that plant operators or the government will act to protect itself by not protecting or informing them, citizens lose faith in both the nuclear industry and the government.

Although there are some parallels to climate science, no other energy form is nearly so reliant on trust in a narrow cadre of engineers, scientists and regulators for its public acceptance. Had the Fukushima plants used any other prime mover (the technical term for energy forms used to generate power), there would have been no evacuation or ongoing safety fears, and the story would have faded from the world press in a day.

Quite a lot has already been said about the impact of Fukushima on the hoped-for "nuclear renaissance." Most of the commentary, including my own, has centered rather mechanically on how much more nuclear plants will now cost and which new reactor projects will continue to proceed. Yes, we will see a few projects on the drawing boards drop away. No, this will not change bipartisan congressional support for maintaining a commercial nuclear power industry.

I now realize that this accident will have a deeper and more lasting impact. Sadly, we live in an era of deteriorating trust for most of the institutions of civil society, including representative government. The debate over climate science has politicized this venerated institution to a degree never before seen in modern times. These long-term developments, combined with the specific allegations leveled at Tepco and the government of Japan, suggest that nuclear power has a much bigger hurdle to surmount than its specific license approvals. More than any other energy form, its fate is tied to our very confidence in government's ability to protect its citizens from harm, admit its own wrongdoing and criticize and control powerful corporate interests.

This is a tall order, and it does not bode well for the hoped-for nuclear revival. It does, however, suggest a path forward for civilian nuclear power. Governments can gain the trust they need to revive this sector by demonstrating the ability to provide transparency and accountability in the regulation of nuclear plants and the handling of nuclear accidents. In and of itself, this is a goal that will advance all of civil society and repair the public's trust in government. It could also be the key to preserving the future of this low-carbon resource.

The views expressed in this article are strictly those of the author.