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Nuclear Power, the Electrical Grid, and the Credibility of the Japanese Government

by | March 21st, 2011 | 09:43 am

While Japan appears to be making progress in resolving the situation at the damaged Fukushima nuclear power facility, the idiosyncrasy of the Japanese power grid and the nuclear industry’s checkered history could contribute to further undermining the struggling government’s already shaky credibility.  In the words of one young Japanese woman acquaintance, "I don’t trust them but where else can we get the information?"

Part of the problem stems from the "fog of war": the government at times has put out inaccurate, contradictory, or misleading information, a common occurrence in emergency situations. These missteps were presumably inadvertent, and are comprehensible in light of the chaos that accompanied the earthquake and tsunami. However, they feed into pre-existing public apprehensions about the Japanese nuclear industry, stoked by a well-organized anti-nuclear movement.

And this is not just anti-nuclear paranoia: over the last two decades, public confidence of the Japanese has been undermined by a series of incidents in which plant operators and government officials concealed questionable practices, minimized accidents, and engaged in cover-upsincluding at the Fukushima plant.  The public is aware that despite their government’s reassurances, foreign governments are advising their citizens to leave, the US government has announced a larger evacuation zone around Fukushima that the government of Japan has, and that foreign officials are leaking damaging commentary to the press.     

The government’s difficulties in dealing with a skeptical public have been compounded by a quirk in the electrical grid dating from the 19th century.  Authorities constructed a grid in eastern Japan (including Fukushima and Tokyo) using German generators operating at 50 Hz, while the grid in western Japan (including Nagoya and Osaka, for example) employed 60 Hz American-made generators. The upshot is that the island of Honshu has two grids operating at different frequencies, limiting the ability to shift loads across the island.  Tokyo Electrical Power (TEPCO), operator of the damaged Fukushima plant and the eastern grid, is now predicting continuing blackouts in Tokyo perhaps until the end of April. 

Apart from the real economic costs of these disruptions, continuing blackouts in Tokyo, the nation’s media center and the gateway for foreign correspondents covering the crisis, constitute a public relations nightmare for the government.  While life may go on in the western grid areas, the nation and world will be bombarded by images of ongoing problems emanating from Tokyo, deflating confidence, and undermining morale.

See also Japanese Earthquake Recovery Estimates.

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