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Western Press Review: Japan Confronts The Atom Again

Prague,4 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Japan's nuclear accident last week -- occurring in the only nation to have been the target of nuclear blasts -- drew substantial commentary in the Western press today and over the weekend.

Sueddeutsche Zeitung commentator Martin Urban wrote Saturday that the accident fuels arguments that not just certain reactors should be shut down, but the entire nuclear industry. Urban said this: "Japan has used nuclear energy in an irresponsible and negligent manner, and as the accident as well as the confused response showed, it is surprisingly lacking in nuclear competence, given its prowess in other fields." The writer went on, in his words: "The more nuclear plants there are, the greater the possibility of disaster. As Japan has just shown, a fairly simple mistake in a relatively small nuclear fabrication plant can lead to enormous consequences."

The accident raised questions about nuclear safety outside Japan's borders as well, Rand Corporation analysts Gregory S. Jones and Brian G. Chow wrote in a commentary in Saturday's Los Angeles Times. They observed that what they called "criticality accidents" have been rare in Western countries since the industry designed modern equipment to control against worker error. As the writers put it: "The Japanese instead relied on the workers' always carrying out the process correctly."

Japan, the Rand analysts wrote, has a pattern of careless nuclear mishaps. Even so, they wrote, in their words: "This incident shows that nuclear safety is not just a problem at nuclear power plants. A lot more attention will now be focused on the safety of the six currently operating nuclear fabrication plants in the United States, as well as other facilities in the nuclear industry."

The Los Angeles Times published another commentary Saturday arguing that rather than killing the nuclear industry, technologists across the world should join to minimize the chances that nuclear energy will kill people. The writer, Najmedin Meshkati, is a professor of engineering at the University of Southern California.

Meshkati said a recent analysis of more than 800 incidents reported to the Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry blamed almost 200 events on human error. He said another cause of the two major accidents in 2.5 years at Tokaimura is the poor safety culture of Sumitomo Metal Mining Co., which owns the plant.

In Meshkati's words: "To improve the safety problems of nuclear power, we need to improve the safety culture of this industry and address human and organization-related factors. To keep the nuclear genie around the world bottled up, we need genuine international cooperation and coordination among equipment manufacturers, operating companies, operators' unions, regulatory agencies, international organizations, scientific and research communities and governments." The newspaper placed this headline on Meshkati's commentary: "The Process Can Be Managed."

German commentator Patrick Illinger wrote the following in Saturday's Sueddeutsche Zeitung: "No-one quite wants to say so outright, and in academic circles it probably is not done. But what nearly all nuclear experts imply is quite clear. What happened at Japan's Tokaimura uranium processing plant was a barely conceivable, tragic instance of carelessness that experts in both Europe and the United States feel is virtually ruled out on both sides of the Atlantic."

The New York Times said in an editorial Saturday that Japan, which has seemed less than forthcoming abut previous accidents, should, in the editorial's words: "make full and prompt disclosure of what happened at Tokaimura." The Times also said this: "As the U.S. nuclear industry continues to press for easier regulation and less stringent standards, Tokamura is a warning that too much relaxation can be dangerous."

Two prominent U.S. newspapers today carry editorials expressing approval of U.S. President Bill Clinton's proposal to forgive about $3.5 billion dollars in debt owed by impoverished nations to the United States. They agreed it was a significant proposal. But a commentary in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung says the debt relief plan will make little difference.

The New York Times calls the Clinton announcement "dramatic and important." The editorial concludes with this: "Congress should approve quickly the president's request, which is a pittance for America but can improve the lives of the most needy worldwide."

The Washington Post says the announcement is a "bold promise," but the paper expresses doubt whether Clinton can persuade Congress to agree with the initiative. The people of the debtor countries, as the Washington Post puts it, "cannot pay back money that corrupt rulers borrowed and then squandered. Congress should vote the money through."

But Michael Birnbaum, in a commentary in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung on Saturday, said the proposed debt relief will have little impact. He put it this way: "Since we are talking about the writing off of long-term credits on special terms at less than one percent interest, this kind of state alms policy costs the rich West a mere pittance each year. We can afford it. All the same, the bitter truth remains: it will be of scant help to the people in the Third World."

Birnbaum argued that there is a long-standing myth that Third World countries will benefit from increased financial aid. In his words: "Apparently none of us is willing to say openly that this is wrong."

He contended that Third World countries have not become more independent in recent decades as a result of, what he calls, "our alms policy." In his words: "What has gone wrong? To put it in a nutshell: through our well-meant gifts -- subsidies, interest-free credits and debt relief -- we do not reduce the economic inefficiencies of these states, we stabilize them. Instead of development, we finance inertia." ss