Can the World Learn from America’s Approach to Nuclear Energy?

by Ryota Ozawa and Rie Yamada

“Zero risk” nuclear energy is impossible. It is dangerous to assume that all safety measures are perfectly in place because this assumption hampers efforts to improve safety, which is a shared goal regardless of one’s political position on civil nuclear power generation. This point may seem obvious, but politically, it is not always easy to make: supporters of nuclear power feel uncomfortable voicing the risks of nuclear power plants, while opponents worry that acknowledging efforts to improve safety can lead to de facto acceptance of nuclear energy. In order to mitigate this political challenge in post-Fukushima Japan and in the broader international community, the United States offers an inspiring model based on public participation and democratic representation.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has a public participation system in place that allows the public to ask questions and voice concerns regarding nuclear regulations. Because nuclear regulation employs advanced scientific knowledge, some may argue that public input is a waste of time. However, the public has a valuable role to play here, stepping in when science cannot answer the question of “how safe is safe enough?” and when experts fall into the group think trap. Moreover, through participation, the public can notice this dangerous political trap and encourage constructive discussions for improving safety.

Of course, without meaningful government participation and support, engaging public discourse is just a pie in the sky. The public might be afraid that the government is only feigning interest in public opinion with a conclusion already decided in advance. At the same time, a constructive public attitude with respect to others—including industry and regulators—is essential. Regulators may be concerned that some NGOs will merely push their own interests without considering the genuine interests of other citizens and of business.

In light of these concerns, U.S. efforts to make the public participation system function successfully have been noteworthy and have avoided the cynicism mentioned above. For example, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) provides public education and encourages participation in the NRC discussion process. Dave Lockbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project, has claimed that using the NRC public participation processis good strategy since the “NRC has authority power but is not all-mighty God.” He emphasizes the importance of scientific knowledge in discussing policy with the NRC and persuading it to take steps for safety. For example, in 1997 the UCS successfully persuaded the NRC to accept its input about problems facing the Washington, DC Cook Nuclear Power Plant and regulations on the working hours of operation workers. Lockbaum adds that through monitoring—or even helping—the NRC, Americans can enjoy improved safety levels democratically. Additionally, the NRC values public input on creating strong and fair regulations. In our interview with Chip Cameron, a former public relations officer at the NRC, he stated that the NRC understands how communication with the public is a meaningful reminder to us of our ultimate objective of protecting the public and avoiding group think. Cameron thinks democracy helps “improve the quality of regulation.”

Of course, public participation is not a substitute for representative democracy and its associated constitutional guarantees. In other words, the NRC should show leadership in protecting the public as required by law, rather than merely balancing diverse public opinions. Dr. Gregory Jaczko, former chairperson of the NRC, has noted that the NRC should make decisions at its own discretion—if the public disagrees with the NRC decision, they can change the Commission’s members through Congress. This is the principle of representative democracy.

The U.S. model shows the benefits of such a democracy. To make use of advanced technology like nuclear power, which has significant benefits and risks, democratic management is essential. The U.S. also shows the necessity of social efforts to maintain sound democratic management of advanced technology. Some Japanese critics, such as the Independent Commission on the Fukushima Nuclear Accident and Tooru Takeda, point out that the absence of constructive communication between supporters and opponents was one of the factors contributing to the Fukushima accident. Some Japanese experts, such as Rie Yamada, insist that the absence of constructive discussion is a still problem in Japan even after the accident. As some U.S. experts say, our view of U.S. policy can be too optimistic. However, we still believe strategic partnership between the public and government based on participation and representation can provide many insights to other nations looking to manage the political debate and risks around nuclear power.

About the Author

Ryota Ozawa works at the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI). He is the former Deputy Director of the Legal Division of the Japanese Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA), and is currently a 2015 Master of International Business candidate at the Fletcher School. Rie Yamada is a staff writer for the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbum, covering the social issues surrounding Japanese nuclear power. Rie is a Fulbright Scholar and was an associate for the Program for U.S-Japan Relations at the Weatherhead Center at Harvard University for the 2013-2014 academic year. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors, and does not represent any views of the Government of Japan.

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