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How TEPCO's Nuclear Bungling Could Help Japan

Tokyo Electric Power has enjoyed a bosom buddy relationship with the Japanese government for decades. The utility's bureaucratic ties run deep, allowing it to glide effortlessly through a series of mistakes over the years. Even Japanese prime minister Naoto Kan -- who is no fan of the tight bureaucrat-industry ties that have sheltered TEPCO for so long -- seemed supportive of the company in the early days of the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster. Thanks to TEPCO's callous and out-of-touch response, those days are over.

TEPCO's repeated bungling of the nuclear power plant disaster has endangered its own workers, led to a ban on imports, damaged the credit ratings of other Japanese utilities, and sent radioactive water into the sea that threatens to undermine the fishing industry. But its failures also have led to one brilliant side effect: the government is getting tough and Japan's citizenry is getting angry.

That doesn't sound like a big deal. In Japan, it is.

The final straw for the government may have come March 26, when TEPCO -- still struggling to prevent a meltdown -- informed the Fukushima prefecture that it wanted to start building two new reactors as early as next spring. A formal proposal was sent several days later.

The reaction was hardly positive. In fact, it sparked outrage from the governor, Fukushima's director of planning, who originally received the proposal, and now the Japanese people. The only group that has tempered its criticism is the media. And even they have started to show signs of impatience.

Whether the outrage surrounding TEPCO causes Japan to push for more transparency between government and other industries, remains to be seen. But Kan is well poised to encourage that shift. The prime minister, whose party ousted the long-ruling Liberal Democratic party in 2009, is unlike all of his five immediate predecessors. He's not the direct descendant of a prime minister or minister and his Democratic Party of Japan doesn't share LPD's long history of coddling TEPCO. His anti-bureaucratic, anti-insider persona could be what Japan's citizenry needs, and what TEPCO fears.

Photo from TEPCO via

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