Japan's nuclear power plants are starting to cause the same understandable misgivings among apprehensive neighbors that have choked off expansion of the industry in the United States. Despite Japan's urgent need for power, its industrial barons don't seem any more able to cure the nuclear jitters than America's nuclear industry has.
Amid growing concern over global warming, many industrial nations feel they are going to need more nuclear power, or something very much like it, to replace fossil fuels. Japan's energy crisis should be a chance for the next generation of nuclear reactors to show its stuff. But as we understand it, Japan's energy decision makers are of the same mind as American utility leaders. If they ever start buying new reactors again, they will stick with what they know.
They should put their heads together and think this through. The Japanese could give the Americans some pointers on how to go about picking winners among competing technologies. The Americans could offer a winner--a technology that is very much "new generation" and as close as this century's engineers are likely to get to foolproof.
In recent years, the Japanese reputation for building high-quality cars spilled quite comfortably into other products, even its nuclear power plants. They seemed to work just fine, too. In recent months, however, a string of reactor failures--one serious enough to put a plant out of commission for a projected three years--has started to drain Japanese public confidence in nuclear power. Americans probably still are generally more jittery about nuclear plants than Japanese, but for the Japanese even a small loss of trust in power plants could complicate the nation's overall energy planning. With no fossil fuels of its own, Japan depends on nuclear power far more than the United States to keep its factories going. By its own estimate it needs to build two plants a year for the next 20 years to avoid serious harm to its economy.