The world fears Japan has lost control of the crisis

International criticism of Japan’s handling of the nuclear crisis grows.

For the first time since the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant began, we're beginning to hear international criticism of the Japanese government. The head of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory Jaczko, has warned that the situation is more serious than the country's officials are prepared to say.

Jaczko told Congress that Japan should impose an exclusion zone of at least 50 miles, and not just 12. Most significantly, he also warned that all the water had evaporated from the spent fuel pool in reactor 4, leaving nothing to stop the fuel rods from getting hotter. In effect, the Obama administration, which has collected its own independent data on radiation levels, has rejected the assessment provided by Japan.

The Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company have offered an unconvincing rebuttal. Hajime Motojuku, a spokesman for Tokyo Electric, said: "We can't get inside to check, but we've been carefully watching the building's environs, and there has not been any particular problem." Few, not least in Japan, will be reassured by his hesitant tone.

But it's not just the US that fears Japan has lost control of the crisis. The International Atomic Energy Agency, whose head will visit Tokyo today to assess the "very serious" situation, has warned the government that it must provide better information to its organisation. Perhaps most striking are the words of the EU's energy chief, Günther Oettinger, who told the European Parliament: "There is talk of an apocalypse and I think the word is particularly well chosen."

In response to these concerns, the UK government is chartering planes for British nationals unable to leave on scheduled flights – an important test of Foreign Office competence.

What one can say with some certainty is that the continuing crisis will strengthen the backlash against nuclear power across Europe. In this week's magazine, Mark Lynas offers a cool dose of realism and warns that the world cannot afford to abandon atomic energy. He writes:

If the crisis in Japan leads to a large-scale shift in attitudes against nuclear power, the outcome will be a worsening of human impact on the environment. Japan is a good example of why fixing global warming without increased use of nuclear energy is as good as impossible: the country has little resources of solar or wind power, and is heavily dependent on imported fossil fuels. Coal and nuclear each meet about 25 per cent of Japanese energy needs.

Whether the world reaches the same conclusion is likely to depend on the outcome of events at Fukushima.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.