After a two-month hiatus from nuclear power, Japan restarted one of its 50 functional reactors on Thursday just as a report on the Fukushima disaster strongly criticized nearly everyone involved.
The reactor restart, at the Ohi plant in Fukui prefecture in the western part of Japan, comes after widespread protests over nuclear plants' safety. But Japanese officials say they need at least some nuclear power in order to stave off blackouts over the summer, and insist that the Ohi reactor has passed substantial safety tests before the restart.
The new report, from an independent commission of experts, though, will do little to assuage fears surrounding the continued use of nuclear energy. In panel chairman Kiyoshi Kurokawa's preface to the report, he calls the Fukushima crisis a "profoundly manmade disaster -- that could and should have been foreseen and prevented." Kurokawa's message is a striking look inward:
"What must be admitted -- very painfully -- is that this was a disaster "Made in Japan." Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to 'sticking with the program'; our groupism; and our insularity."
In other words, even as the report lays blame at the feet of Fukushima operator TEPCO, regulators, and higher levels of government, there is also an underlying notion that it was a cultural failure rather than a series of individual failures. "Had other Japanese been in the shoes of those who bear responsibility for this accident, the result may well have been the same," Kurokawa writes.
The commission of 10 included two medical doctors, two lawyers, a seismologist, a chemist, several other university professors, and a former U.N. ambassador. It interviewed 1167 people and conducted more than 900 hours of hearings to determine what caused the disaster and what can be done to prevent another. One important conclusion is that "TEPCO was too quick to cite the tsunami as the cause of the nuclear accident.... We believe there is a possibility that the earthquake damaged equipment necessary for ensuring safety." This implies that Japanese reactors not at risk from a tsunami could still face some sort of similar disaster. The Ohi reactor that just came online, for example, may sit atop an active fault line.
The report's recommendations, though, stick largely to government issues and regulatory oversight rather than offering technical safety advice. Among them are reforms in the methods for crisis management, substantial changes to TEPCO's and other nuclear operators' systems, and new nuclear energy legislation that clearly defines operator and government roles.
This critical internal examination comes as countries around the world continue to back off the use of nuclear power. But the Ohi restart highlights that nuclear power is too ingrained in the energy picture around the world to disappear any time soon.