TWO weeks after Japan’s trade minister gave the all-clear to restart nuclear-power plants that had been shut for maintenance, Naoto Kan, the prime minister, ordered on July 6th that they should first undergo rigorous stress tests. The inverted sequence showed that only a cursory examination had taken place. Hideo Kishimoto, a mayor in southwestern Japan who had earlier given his local power company permission to restart the Genkai nuclear-power plant, retracted his approval. “I can’t trust the government,” he said.
It is a refrain heard throughout Japan, aimed not only at national politicians but also at the power companies, bureaucrats, academics and the media who had given assurances that the country’s nuclear plants were disaster-proof. A country that has long been governed by informal bonds of trust is seeing them start to fray. The meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant is forcing a re-examination of Japan’s most influential institutions.
The credibility gap bedevils the utilities. Tokyo Electric (TEPCO), the utility that serves the capital and runs the Fukushima plant, has been accused of withholding data from the start, including from the prime minister. And the energy firms have a record of spotty safety standards and cover-ups stretching back years. Yet their image worsened in recent days when it transpired that Kyushu Electric, which operates Genkai, asked thousands of employees to pose as ordinary citizens and send e-mails and faxes in support of reopening reactors at a public meeting in June that was televised live. The attempt to manipulate public sentiment, exposed by a rare whistle-blower, angered the public and energised the media.
Japan’s food supply is safe. But pockets of doubt have crept in, owing to a mishandling of safety inspections. On July 13th the Tokyo Metropolitan Government said that beef contaminated with radioactive caesium more than six times above the safety limit was sold and possibly consumed. It followed initial reports that the meat never made it to market. Though the quantity was small (only a few cows, it appears so far) and the health risk said to be non-existent, it raises suspicions. When radiation above European safety limits was found in tea from Shizuoka in June, a prefectural official asked the retailer, Radishbo-ya, to keep quiet so as not to harm local growers.
The crisis of confidence in Japanese authority is still at the seedling stage. Yet lately there have been nightly televised exposés of the gulf between official reassurances and the worrying reality. Even the belated stress tests raise eyebrows: they will be undertaken by the utilities themselves and checked by two regulatory agencies that previously failed to supervise the utilities properly. On July 13th Mr Kan said he wants Japan to reduce nuclear power on safety grounds, if not to get rid of it altogether. A few months ago such a policy was unthinkable, because of the risk of power shortages. The public increasingly supports it—but not Mr Kan.