June 22, 2012

JAPAN’S PRIME MINISTER, Yoshihiko Noda, has been sailing into the political winds lately, bravely pushing a tax increase and the restarting of the country’s nuclear power stations, idled after last year’s earthquake and meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Both initiatives could be risky to his career, given that his five predecessors each survived in office less than 15 months.

Mr. Noda’s drive to switch on nuclear power has implications far beyond Japan. It goes to the heart of a question that has troubled people since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979: Can governments and utilities be trusted to safely manage complex machines that split the atom and capture the energy?

Nuclear power evokes suspicions that run deeper than other technology hazards, social researchers say. In today’s globalized digital universe, the scenes of chaos and fear at Fukushima spread quickly. Germany decided to close eight of its 17 nuclear power plants. Although U.S. views of nuclear energy were not shaken as dramatically, the need to build and sustain public confidence can’t be taken for granted. In the fight against global warming, nuclear power remains a vital low-carbon energy source and very well may be for a long time to come.

In Japan, nuclear power generated about 30 percent of the electricity supply before the disaster. Years of public relations by government and industry had left people convinced it was safe and necessary. More than eight in 10 Japanese favored in a 2005 poll building more nuclear plants or maintaining the existing ones. Now that support has crumbled. In a survey taken in Japan by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project and published this month, 70 percent of respondents said that the country should reduce its reliance on nuclear energy. Eighty percent said that the government has done a poor job dealing with the Fukushima crisis.

These feelings are an understandable response to the shock of the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami. But they also stem from inexcusable missteps by the government in failing to fully inform people of the radiation dangers as the crisis unfolded. Thousands of Japanese fled in the same direction as winds were carrying radiation emissions. Data about the emissions existed but were not disseminated in a timely way. No wonder people are still angry.

Japan has begun to address the mistrust with legislation to overhaul the nuclear regulatory agencies and with revised safety standards. In recent days, Mr. Noda has decided to restart two of the 50 commercial Japanese reactors taken offline for inspection after Fukushima, but he faces great skepticism. The Three Mile Island meltdown and Chernobyl disaster showed that, once lost, public trust is extremely hard to regain. Even in closed societies, a nuclear accident cannot be hushed up, as Mikhail Gorbachev discovered after Chernobyl. A lesson of all three accidents is that if nuclear energy is to have a sustainable future, a foundation of public confidence is essential. Splitting the atom must be done with care — and candor.