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17 March 2011

The world fears Japan has lost control of the crisis

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

By George Eaton

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.”

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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.