Japan casts a nervous glance at nuclear

July 10, 2013, 11:06 AM UTC

FORTUNE — Teetering along the Pacific Ring of Fire, Japan has long cultivated a nuclear power program despite the obvious dangers.

Now squeezed by energy needs, Japanese leaders say they are ready to embark again on the nuclear route after closing all but two of Japan’s 50 nuclear reactors following the massive quake that sparked the Fukushima meltdowns. The reasoning? Japan’s technocracy still believes it has the best quake-proofing engineering in the world.

The majority of the population, until Fukushima, felt the same. Since then, technological certainty and the promise of a golden age of science has been shattered by fear. “I blame the planners and engineers; they knew the risks. It’s the same now as then,” says Shinobu Nemoto a 28-year-old plumber, subcontracted to work at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

Nemoto helps maintain the myriad of essential cooling pipes that have been cobbled together since the Tohoku quake of 2011 to keep the reactors cool. Breakdowns are frequent, but workers must keep the water pumping over the nuclear cores. Any break of more than 40 hours could see the cores, now thought cooled sufficiently to cease being a menace, heat up and become volatile again.

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Tsunami, earthquakes, power outages all threaten to bring the situation back to panic stations. “The power companies are not honest with us and put us in danger,” he says of the colossal hubris that Fukushima has come to represent.

The government is attempting to assuage jittery voters with promises of a reformed nuclear industry. Japan’s new nuclear power watchdog insists fresh guidelines, which go into effect July 8, will legally require operators of nuclear power plants to be prepared for “severe accidents” mitigating dangers from earthquakes and other terrors.

Until Fukushima, Japan’s reactors had responded well to quakes and shut down safely even after events as large as the 7.2 Kobe earthquake, official records show. However, seismologist professor Ishibashi Katsuhiko of Kobe University believes there hasn’t been a technology yet invented that can prevent a disaster in the event of the biggest earthquakes. “To reinforce facilities to withstand such stresses would make them unfeasible,” he said at a press conference last year.

That hasn’t stopped the private-sector nuclear power industry from trying. Engineers have been busy upgrading atomic plants to meet what Japan’s new Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) is calling the world’s toughest earthquake and tsunami standards at a cost to the industry of many billions of dollars.

Following the NRA’s demands, power stations are undergoing extensive retrofitting. That includes a strengthening of the basic design, new technologies to prevent core damage and containment failure, as well as the addition of extra costly backups such as remote control centers each at a cost of around $1.5 billion — changes calculated to inspire confidence in consumers and investors alike.

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CEO & Chairman of the Institute of Energy Economics think tank, Masakazu Toyoda can’t see how Japan can continue in the short run without nuclear power. He suggests in a report that his country should have about a quarter of its energy from nuclear by 2030 for an optimum energy mix. “In addition to energy conservation, four types of energy, that is, nuclear energy, renewable energy, fossil energy and cogeneration should be combined in a well-balanced and diverse way to assure energy security,” he says.

He emphasizes that this time Japan’s nuclear power safety must be guaranteed by an independent body.

Pre-Fukushima government guidelines and controls turned out worse than inadequate for some types of natural disasters and man-made accidents. Past rules called for plants to be able to withstand a magnitude 6.5-class earthquake with the epicenter directly under the plant. However, buildings and cooling systems were not designed to withstand certain massive earthquakes and tsunamis as witnessed in the Fukushima triple disaster.

Designers working on reactors like those at Fukushima were under instructions to make only “voluntary” design adjustments according to reactor engineer Dr Masashi Goto, who until four years ago worked for Toshiba which built two of the reactors at Fukushima. “We had only guidelines from the government and the companies we were designing reactors for, which suggested the chance of an accident owing to earthquakes would be minimal. They asked the companies involved in designing only to make “voluntary” efforts to make the reactor’s containment vessel quake-proof, for example,” he says.

This “wishing of risk away” demonstrates the folly to which Japan’s nuclear complex has been particularly prone, says Jeff Kingston, Director of Asian Studies, of Temple University Japan. He points out that stricter rules depend on stricter monitoring and robust compliance. The problem, he claims, is that the separation of industry and watchdog agencies has not been achieved.

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The new NRA is staffed largely by employees from the previous nuclear authority NISA. “To some degree the lessons of Fukushima have been absorbed, but those former NISA employees were part of the averted eyes approach to safety monitoring that has prevailed,” he says.

Aside from institutional failures, there is another question: Can Japan put its close relationship between the nuclear complex and authorities behind it? In the past, side effects of that relationship have included data falsification and fabrication, deliberately duping safety inspectors, and failure to report problems such as uncontrolled criticality incidents at reactors and emergency shutdowns. Unlike the plants themselves, the culture of opacity ingrained in Japan’s nuclear nexus could prove harder to re-engineer.