During the earthquake on March 11, 2011, TEPCO's Kenji Tateiwa emerged from the subway to see Japan's skyscrapers swaying like trees in the wind. 

On Friday, March 11, 2011, Chuck Casto got a call while pumping gas in Marietta

A friend, knowing his 40-year career as a nuclear regulator, wanted to ask about news reports that the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, already a tragedy in their own right, were also threatening to trigger a nuclear disaster. 

Mr. Casto told his friend that with Japan’s expertise in this field, he was confident everything would be all right. 

“I was a little wrong on that prediction,” Mr. Casto said during Kennesaw State University’s Year of Japan conference on humanitarian responses to crisis March 21. 

Set to retire, Mr. Casto would end up spending the next 11 months in Japan as part of a U.S. team sent from the Atlanta-based Institute of Nuclear Power Operations and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to assist Japan in its response to what eventually became a meltdown in one of the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.  

He remembered the eerie feeling when touching down by helicopter in the staging area 18 miles away from the reactor. The village had been evacuated. Cups still sat on counters. Doors stood open. Dogs roamed the streets in search of food. For the first time in his four decades in the field, his radiation monitor began beeping off the charts. 

The reinforcements were welcome, said Kenji Tateiwa who was working in Tokyo Electric Power Corp.’s international affairs department at the time. 

Mr. Tateiwa, now in the company’s nuclear power programs department, said the INPO team provided invaluable expertise and moral support to the TEPCO team tasked with handling an unprecedented crisis. 

When the earthquake hit, Mr. Tateiwa was just getting off a a subway train. He felt the shaking and ran up to the ground level to see the skyscrapers of Tokyo swaying like trees in the wind. 

“You could hear the screeching sound of the concrete foundation more than 20 minutes after the initial shock,” he said.

TEPCO, the regional electricity monopoly, immediately lost 40 percent of its power generation capacity, leaving much of the capital city in the dark. The Fukushima Daiichi reactors had shut down as designed when the earthquake hit. But a tsunami four times the previous record height came later, knocking out power and strewing debris that blocked access.

When Mr. Tateiwa visited the site three weeks after the disaster, he got a much better feel for the sacrifices made by workers who stayed on site trying to keep the reactor cool, sometimes without knowing what had become of their families. 

He had to put on one of their respirators to make the rounds. “In a mere 30 minutes, I was about to throw up. It was that uncomfortable. I cannot imagine how our colleagues, our fellow contract workers, continued to cope with the situation for hours, for days and for weeks,” he said. 

TEPCO’s response to the incident, however, hasn’t always been as admired as the heroism showed by its workers, and the Japanese public still harbors a deep distrust of the nuclear industry. The country’s 50-plus nuclear reactors remain shut down. In the aftermath of the disaster, Japan passed both a renewable energy law and one aimed at breaking up regional power monopolies, but their eventual effects are uncertain. 

Brian Woodall, an associate professor in the Georgia Tech’s Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, said losing nuclear energy has forced costs higher, threatening a nascent recovery under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose “Abenomics” policies have revived growth, at least temporarily. 

Japan imports practically all of its oil, and now it’s brining in liquified natural gas to fuel power plants, said Dr. Woodall in a presentation on why Japan has failed to have a significant green energy policy. 

Before World War II, Japan relied mainly on hydropower and coal. During the war, the coal dependence continued, but the government experimented with its first green energy project, an ultimately ill-fated plan to make jet fuel from pine tree roots. The problem: It took 200 trees to keep a plane in the air for one hour, Dr. Woodall said. 

As Japan’s post-war economy ramped up in the 1950s, the Liberal Democratic Party came into power and instituted an “iron triangle” between the party, the ministry of trade (which controlled energy) and the regional electricity monopolies. 

That continued until the oil crisis of the early 1970s, which sparked a conservation movement. It couldn’t have come too soon, as rampant air pollution became a major problem by the time Dr. Woodall made his first visit in 1973. 

“The air quality was abysmal, it was awful. People getting off the subway in Tokyo would buy oxygen canisters just to breathe clean air,” he remembered. 

In the ensuing period, Japan was able to decouple economic growth from harmful air pollutants, largely thanks to nuclear power. 

But the fear fostered by Fukushima hasn’t subsided, and whether Japan decommissions the nuclear plants or brings them back on line, a long road lies ahead. 

“It’s a chance for the Japanese to have the world’s best nuclear safety regime if they want to,” Dr. Woodall said. 

But when the “safest reactor is a shut down reactor,” public perception will determine policy, Mr. Casto said. 

What they really need to have is a national dialogue on risk, and they’ve not had that yet,” he said. 

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...