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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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