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Earthquake Shows Japan’s Beefed-Up Nuclear Safety Works

The worst earthquake to hit Japan’s Noto Peninsula in at least 130 years could have become yet another roadblock on the path to restarting nuclear power.

In fact, the opposite may be true.

The Shika atomic plant, some 40 miles from the epicenter and offline when the tremor hit, did lose its grid connection — as happened 13 years ago in one of the most devastating nuclear disasters in history, on the other side of Japan. But a crisis was averted this time thanks to backup generators.

The Shika facility was retrofitted with new safety equipment — including auxiliary power supply and underground fuel storage — following the 2011 Fukushima catastrophe. That helped to keep spent nuclear fuel cool, according to public broadcaster NHK.

Granted, this week’s quake and tsunami were much smaller than the 2011 cataclysm, which cut power to Fukushima Dai-Ichi, disabled backups and triggered a meltdown. Monday’s 7.6-magnitude temblor caused no real damage to the reactors dotting the west coast, some of which were online.

Ships washed ashore in Suzu, Ishikawa prefecture, after the New Year’s Day earthquake.Photographer: FRED MERY/AFP via Getty Images

But the event has been a compelling demonstration of Japan’s atomic safety system in action.

A new nuclear regulator was introduced a year after Fukushima. The watchdog brought in stricter rules, requiring equipment updates and countless safety checks.

That’s certainly slowed plant restarts (about two-thirds of the nation’s 33 reactors remain idle), but it’s also ensured the industry is ready for moments like this.

The changes include a commitment to provide swift and clear information to the public on the status of the facilities — key to winning popular support for the industry.

None of this may be enough to convince the naysayers. Images of crushing landslides and collapsed houses naturally prompt concern over important infrastructure, including nuclear plants.

There’s still likely to be reluctance among some local politicians, who ultimately will determine the speed of restarts. That means the country will continue to lag behind comparable economies when it comes to cutting out fossil fuels and hitting ambitious green goals.

Yet this week’s quake goes far to prove that Japan, duly protected, can return to the nuclear fold.

Source: Bloomberg