Since the radiation danger at the Japanese nuclear plants became news in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami, anti-nuke activists have used the opportunity to paint this as a perfect example of why we shouldn’t have any new nuclear power plants built in the US.

But the lesson here isn’t about maintaining the 30-year-old moratorium on construction. It’s on how important close government oversight and regulation are.

Evidence shows that this was a disaster waiting to happen.  Government regulators in Japan were warned 3 years ago about possible problems at Fukishima, including stress cracks in the diesel-powered generators that kept the water flowing — the same generators that failed after the natural disasters, causing the important cooling system to fail. The operators of the plant also didn’t inspect over 30 pieces of equipment related to the cooling system, a vital failure considering that the plants are more than 40 years old.  Despite all that, the government re-licensed the Daiichi plant for 10 more years — only weeks before Mother Nature exposed the problems all too clearly.

That’s not a deficiency in the science of nuclear power. It’s incompetence by the people who own and manage the plant, and it’s a failure by the public agencies who are charged with overseeing the industry and ensuring its safety on behalf of the citizenry.

Does that mean we should brush aside the incident in Japan and move forward with more nuclear power plants in this country? Not if the rules and supervision will be left to the industry itself, with regulation and superintendence as lax as they have been with other potentially dangerous energy companies (like a certain off-shore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, where the Minerals Management Service failed so badly in its responsibilities that its director was forced to resign).

I’ve yet to hear from any of the smaller-government enthusiasts on the subject. They always argue that more government regulation can choke businesses to death. But when it comes to radiation, choking is the least of your problems.