U.S.-Japan Nuclear Working Group Report: A Q&A with L. Gordon Flake

 L. Gordon Flake, Chairman of the U.S.-Japan Nuclear Working Group In May 2013, The Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation and the U.S.-Japan Nuclear Working Group released a report examining the broader implications of the Fukushima nuclear accident. The report, Statement on Shared Strategic Priorities in the Aftermath of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident, outlines pressing Japanese energy policy decisions and the broader strategic concerns within Japan’s energy policy debate. It also offers strategic recommendations for industry and government policymakers.

Forum on Energy recently sat down with L. Gordon Flake, Chairman of the U.S.-Japan Nuclear Working Group and one of the key drivers of the report, to discuss its conclusions, implications and possible next steps.

Forum on Energy: What led to the Mansfield Foundation’s decision to convene the U.S.-Japan Nuclear Working Group and produce this report?

L. Gordon Flake: In 2010 and 2011, the Mansfield Foundation convened a group of U.S.-Japan relations experts to examine and articulate issues of critical concern for the relationship in the coming years. This group came together for the last of its four meetings in June 2011 in Tokyo — three months after the Great Tohoku Earthquake. By that time, aftershocks had largely passed, and the situation at the Fukushima Nuclear Power plant had stabilized somewhat. While most of Japan’s nuclear reactors were still operating, it was nevertheless clear to the group that the nuclear disaster would force significant changes in Japan. The group identified five priorities for the U.S.-Japan relationship. Among those, they paid special attention to the need to expeditiously address Japan’s nuclear power crisis. The group understood the vast implications of the nuclear disaster — that the necessary changes to Japan’s nuclear energy practices would have significant implications not just domestically, but for climate change, regional energy security, and the nonproliferation regime, as well as regional and global security.

Building on this exercise, the Mansfield Foundation initiated talks with the Federation of American Scientists to form the U.S.-Japan Nuclear Working Group, an ideologically balanced group of American and Japanese experts that would articulate and examine the broad implications of Japan’s nuclear disaster.

Forum on Energy: What were your goals at the outset of the investigation?

Flake: Ultimately, for all of the light that the Fukushima accident shone on matters of technical design, regulatory lapses, etc., our concern has been that broader implications — national, bilateral, global — are being missed. Part of the problem here is the groups that normally opine on these sorts of matters have been thoroughly discredited in the nuclear energy arena. The Japanese Cabinet and energy ministry, the electric power industry and Japanese academia — the so-called nuclear village — have lost their voice in Japan’s energy policy discussion. Simultaneously, Japan’s anti-nuclear voices have become much more powerful, resulting in an intense and one-sided policy discourse on nuclear power. Our primary goal is to bring a moderate voice to the conversation, one that carries legitimacy by nature of the group’s ideological balance. Our aim is to present a moderate voice to help enable careful and calculated energy policy decisions in full view of trade-offs and consequences.

It is important to note, as we highlight in our group statement, that in many ways Japan is not alone in making these decisions. In fact, the Fukushima accident brings to the fore a number of considerations in the United States and the global community, where careful, forward-thinking policy decisions can make us all safer and more secure. Likewise, many decisions that Japan makes domestically will impact far beyond its borders.

Forum on Energy: Did you achieve them?

Flake: What we have done with our group statement is to articulate, as concisely and understandably as possible, the common concerns that emerge from an ideologically disparate group of American and Japanese nuclear energy experts. Japan is heading into an election season, after which, by the end of July, signs point to a strong Japanese central government with a mission to push forward on nuclear policy decisions. Next steps for our group will largely depend on how effectively we are able to have the group’s concerns heard and reflected in Japan’s public discourse on energy policy over the next five or six months.

However, the truth is that much of the value of this group is in the process rather than the product. The situation surrounding Fukushima and Japan’s energy policy is not static. Therefore, outside of the scope of our group’s statement, there has been and will continue to be an important role for individuals such as those in our group who study these challenges with an eye toward the broader perspective of shared U.S.-Japan priorities and global interests. I believe that our effort has created a network that enriches our members’ expertise and perspectives, but also helps empower them to advocate for the concerns the group has identified.

Forum on Energy: Where will you take the report from here? What are the next steps?

Flake: In September and October, our group will return to Japan to hold a series of meetings with Japanese political and opinion leaders. We will also hold a series of public seminars in Tokyo, Osaka, Hiroshima and Fukushima in order to promote the group’s concerns to a wider audience.

Beyond this important meeting, the Mansfield Foundation and FAS are looking at the next stage of the project. We have made seven specific recommendations for the Japanese, American and global policy communities and we are now exploring ways to move these suggestions forward. I would like to invite the participation of your readers in this effort. I know we can benefit from your creative input and cooperation on these specific recommendations.