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Published: Thursday, 7/12/2012

Safety first

Last year, an earthquake and tsunami in northeast Japan killed 15,000 people and did billions of dollars in damage. Another casualty of that day was Japanese confidence in government and uncritical belief in the competence of Japan's nuclear-power industry.

The tragedy and national trauma forced a shutdown of Japan's nuclear reactors until safety checks are completed. Meanwhile, a just-released independent study commissioned by the Japanese parliament calls Fukushima a foreseeable "man-made disaster" resulting from collusion among government officials and the facility's operator.

The report accuses the bureaucracy in charge of nuclear oversight with a conflict of interest, saying that it promotes nuclear power while trying to regulate the nation's power plants. As a result, the study says, the Japanese government, along with regulators and the plant operator, "failed to correctly develop the most basic safety requirements."

For more than 600 pages, the report outlines assorted institutional failures. It says the prime minister's reluctance to declare a prompt state of emergency was as big a factor in the disaster's escalation as the ill-trained operators who failed to initiate proper safety protocols.

The report recommends a tough approach to future accidents. It calls for monitoring of public health and "a detailed and transparent program of decontamination and relocation."

Even if parliament adopts all the recommendations, it will be a long time before Japanese residents will begin to trust again the operators and regulators of nuclear power plants. In Japan, the 50 main reactors provide 30 percent of electricity.

The lesson of Fukushima is not exclusive to Japan. All nations, including the United States, must put safety first in systems and technologies that can take a big toll when humans become complacent.

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