TOKYO – The Japanese utility still battling leaks of radiated water and rat-caused power outages at a nuclear plant, sent into multiple meltdowns, thinks it has found the perfect person to oversee its safety campaign — a foreign woman.
Lady Barbara Judge — a British-American, who has worked as a lawyer, banker and U.S. Securities and Exchange Commissioner — says that Tokyo Electric Power Co., the utility behind the 2011 Fukushima nuclear catastrophe, has changed enough, under a new president, to begin restarting its reactors.
Still, she did not mince words about the past practices of the utility linked to the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
"There was a culture of efficiency, not a culture of safety," Judge told The Associated Press on Friday, during a trip to Tokyo for meetings at TEPCO. "There was no safety culture. There was an assumption of safety."
Judge, honorary chairman at the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority, says she is exactly the kind of person Japan's insular and male-dominated atomic industry needs to keep it in rein.
She also says nuclear power remains the best option for a resource-poor nation like Japan and vows that under her guidance the utility will adhere to world-class safety standards.
TEPCO, which hired her for its nuclear reform committee in September, is eager to restart its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, northeast of Tokyo.
New government safety rules are set to kick in next week, signaling a possible go-ahead for some of the 50 idled reactors to get back online.
Having undergone a public bailout, TEPCO is bleeding money, facing compensation demands from the thousands of people evacuated from around the plant, as well as importing costly oil, coal and gas to keep power going.
All its reactors are either defunct, including the four being decommissioned at Fukushima Dai-ichi, or shut down for safety tests after the disaster. And nuclear plants that can't restart are a liability, looking terrible on a company's books.
But Japanese protesters oppose restarting the plants, and public opinion surveys show a majority want an end to atomic power. The ruling party is pro-nuclear, but every other political party is demanding a phase-out.
Chikako Fujii, an aromatherapist who has taken to the streets opposing nuclear power, said she had believed in the superiority of Japanese technology — until Fukushima.
"This nation is definitely moving ahead to have nuclear plants back up again. But I am really against that," she said.
Decades are likely needed to decommission Fukushima Dai-ichi. A dead rat recently caused a massive blackout, temporarily shutting down the system to keep reactor-cores cool.
Tons of contaminated water continue to leak. Experienced workers are growing harder to find as they reach radiation-exposure limits.
Judge's answer to such skeptics: TEPCO should do more outreach to answer people's questions and show how nuclear is the superior choice.
She has advised TEPCO to "apologize profusely" for the accident and asserts that under her initiative, TEPCO is bringing together the toughest standards and safest practices in the world.
Judge served as chairman of the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority from 2004 to 2010.
She insists that the safety-oversight section she is bringing together at TEPCO, instead of being ignored as they were in the past, will be respected, a place for "the best and the brightest."
She said the standards her team is putting together would be ready "within months."
After all, the Fukushima accident was set off because backup generators were in the basement when the tsunami struck in March 2011, not a failure of fancy science, she noted.
She pointed to Germany as seeing costly energy imports, worsening carbon emissions and higher electricity prices, while it's buying nuclear power from France, after opting for a nuclear phase-out.
"It's a mess," said Judge. "Life without nuclear is the Emperor's new clothes, as far as I'm concerned."
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