Back in the 1980's, America's elites were running scared of Japan. It was stated that Japan would be the #1 economy in the world by the end of the 20th century, that America needed to learn from the Japanese, yada yada yada. Yet in the 1990's, Japan's economy stumbled. And in the 2000's, Japan's vaunted reputation for quality took multiple hits as coverups of faults in Mitsubishi, Nissan, and Toyota vehicles came to light.
So what happened? Well, what happened was that the Japanophiles were looking at the strengths of Japan's society, but not at its weaknesses. And the biggest weakness is that Japan is a consensus-based shame-based society where nobody will make hard decisions because they will bring shame upon the decision-maker or cause a disruption of social harmony within the company or within society as a whole. As a result, when Japan faced a depression caused by a collapse in housing and land prices in the 1990's, they were unable to make the hard decision to close down the bankrupt banks and fund new ones or to provide a massive bailout restoring the solvency of the bankrupt banks. Instead, they pretended they still had a credible banking system because admitting their banks were bankrupt would have brought shame upon various decision-makers in their society, thereby cutting off credit to large parts of the Japanese economy. And credit is the lynchstone of capitalism. Credit is what allows capitalism to be the most nimble system for creating goods and services ever invented, because credit is what allows a company to swiftly adjust to changing consumer needs by paying for the capital equipment needed to meet those needs with the future sales thus generated. Without a functional banking system, you must wait and slowly accumulate capital to make that capital investment. Japan's banks basically ceased to exist from an economic point of view in the 1990s, pulling one of those legs off the three-legged stool of capitalism, and as a result their economy went sideways -- and has stayed sideways.
The fact that Japan is a shame-based society that values social harmony above all else especially is problematic when you have managers who are drunk, incompetent, or both. And there are such managers scattered all through Japanese industry. And Japan's nuclear industry appears especially prone to that. TEPCO (the utility which owns the Fukishima power plant) has in particular a long and sordid history of mismanagement including submitting fraudulent inspection data to the Japanese government and covering up previous nuclear accidents. Unfortunately the problem is that if a boss is drunk and incompetent, said boss will remain in power pretty much forever, because firing him would be an admission that you made a mistake hiring him and thus bring shame upon you. And there’s far too many of these roadblocks to competence scattered in halls of TEPCO…
So, is the result going to be another Chernobyl? Well... no. There were no safety features at Chernobyl. It didn’t even have a reactor containment vessel, and it was a graphite-moderated reactor, where the graphite would burst into flames if you poured water onto the reactor fuel to cool it down. Completely different design from an old-school boiling-water reactor like Three Mile Island or Fukushima.
Indeed, Fukushima is almost identical in design to Three Mile Island, and almost identical in its operation — i.e., incompetence rules. TEPCO in fact had its operating license yanked for several years in the early ‘oughts for submitting fraudulent inspection reports to Japan’s nuclear regulator. It’s the flip side of the problems caused by America’s “at will” employment system… in Japan, if you have a job, it’s pretty much for life even if you’re incompetent and drunk all the time. And if you happen to be the manager of a nuclear power plant and incompetent and drunk all the time… well. You still have a job for life. Because to fire you would bring shame upon your manager for hiring someone who is drunk and incompetence, and shame-based societies like Japan just can’t deal with that.
That said, there *ARE* designs that will automatically shut down if they lose cooling, like pebble bed reactors. What we should be doing is replacing all these old boiling water reactors (which were designed by the military to power friggin’ NUCLEAR SUBMARINES, not generate electricity, and they’re inherently designed to be compact enough to fit in submarines, not safe) with reactors that are far, far safer. To shut down a pebble bed reactor in an emergency, for example, you *stop* cooling it -- energetic particles then become too energetic to stay in the fuel pellets and stop causing fission, there by preventing the reactor from melting down. This is just one example of reactors which have passive safety systems, which most of today's reactors do NOT have, instead relying upon pumps and other such active devices (devices that require external energy to operate) to prevent them from melting down.
As for “alternate energy”: Energy density. I’ve talked about this before. But you basically cannot maintain technological society with the energy density possible with solar, wind, and geothermal power. And I *LIKE* technological society. Amongst other things, it makes this blog possible… as well as making alternate energy possible. Without technological society, you can't have solar panels or efficient distribution of electricity from wind or geothermal power. Just doesn't work. Wind, solar, and geothermal will be important in the future, but simply will not provide sufficient energy to maintain the kind of technological society needed to create and maintain such an infrastructure. We'll need some kind of more energy-dense power source for that... and right now, unless you want to continue contributing to global warming by burning more hydrocarbons, nuclear power seems to be "it".
-- Badtux the Energy Penguin