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Yakuza links put nation at added nuclear risk

by Jake Adelstein

On April 15, two alleged terrorists in Boston killed three people, injured more than 170 others and terrified a nation — for about $100 it cost them to modify pressure cookers into bombs. We should be glad they didn’t come to Japan, where they may have been able to explode a ready-made nuclear dirty bomb, kill untold thousands, render huge swaths of the country uninhabitable — and get paid by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) in the process.

I wish I were kidding. Japan has more than 50 gigantic nuclear “pressure cookers” ripe for exploitation by terrorists. And they wouldn’t even have to lay siege to the facilities. Instead, they could just walk into a nuclear plant and leave with enough weapons-grade plutonium for a small atomic device — which later could be detonated wherever they chose. How?

In Japan, getting access to a nuclear power plant is very simple: fill out a job application.

It is now more than two years since the start of the nuclear crisis following the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011, and there are still no mandatory background checks for workers at its nuclear facilities.

After the three reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear complex in March 2011, it became clear that Tepco, the plant’s operator, was allowing members of Japan’s organized crime groups, the yakuza, to staff the well-paid cleanup — just as they had been allowed into plants long before then.

Indeed, members and associates of the Sumiyoshi-kai (Kanto) and Kudo-kai (Kyushu) mobs have been arrested for their roles supplying labor to Tepco and its Kansai cousin, Kepco. So the dirty secret that yakuza-linked workers and companies have long sustained Japan’s nuclear industry — along with yakuza members themselves, ex-convicts, wanted criminals, and drug addicts working there — is now public knowledge.

Although many yakuza groups claim to have a protective role in society, most of their members are sociopathic felons who would commit theft, assault or murder to make a little money. And if you consider the black-market value of a little plutonium, you may feel a tad uneasy knowing such people have long had access to it — and can still get their hands on nuclear materials.

Don’t worry, though: Last month the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) said a panel will be set up to discuss atomic energy security issues, and it will consider introducing a system to investigate the backgrounds of workers to avoid acts of terrorism at nuclear plants.

Specifically, it seems the panel will examine ways to check whether nuclear facility employees are drug addicts or have a criminal record, among other issues, in order to screen out anyone who could potentially get involved in terrorism.

The panel will comprise NRA Commissioner Kenzo Oshima and outside experts. However, one expert who will not be on the panel is Haruki Madarame, former chief of the now-dissolved Nuclear Safety Commission. He is currently being investigated by prosecutors for alleged criminal negligence.

But hey, let’s not dwell on the past. The good news is that the NRA is thinking about making nuclear plants safer in the future. They may even reach the same conclusions that the Nuclear Security Expert Commission of the Atomic Energy Commission announced … in September 2011. Of course, why take action when you can spend more time debating about taking action?

The AEC makes recommendations for nuclear energy policy. However, that 2011 report, titled “Basic Nuclear Security Assurance,” doesn’t give a positive view of Japan’s countermeasures.

There, the words “internal threats” appear five times in 14 pages of attached materials. And, in a section headed “Lessons of Fukushima,” it notes: “It is clear there were defects in the management of those leaving and entering the site from the start of the accident. … Licensed (nuclear facility) operators need to first strictly enforce measures to keep suspicious persons from sneaking into the facilities and strengthen countermeasures against threats from within.”

The report, without irony, also notes that criminal acts such as the theft of nuclear materials to build a dirty bomb, or the destruction of facilities, “should be detected, prevented, and stopped so as to cause as little negative impact as possible to life, physical health, property, society and the environment.”

It also recommends that law enforcement, regulators and the power plant operators share information to make sure that thieves, saboteurs or criminals do not have access to the plants or related facilities. But it stops short of mandating background checks.

The United States has long had a screening system in place, but Japan has delayed taking similar measures due to privacy concerns and “respect for human rights.” Meanwhile, Tepco is still unable to locate scores of workers who entered the disaster zone.

Maybe, though, we shouldn’t worry so about criminals gaining access to nuclear plants. After all, the National Diet of Japan’s Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission report in 2012 established Tepco’s responsibility for the triple meltdown. Then months later Tepco admitted it consciously ignored the threat of a tsunami-related disaster.

So perhaps the lesson to be learned is that the greatest threat of “nuclear terrorism” Japan faces is from criminally negligent power companies and a government that fails to punish them.

Come to think of it, maybe we shouldn’t worry at all about criminals gaining access to the nuclear power plants. As the Tokyo Prosecutor Office’s investigation into the top executives of Tepco for professional negligence resulting in injury and death grinds on, it seems more and more likely that criminals have been running the plants for a very long time — they just don’t all have tattoos.

When it comes to the nuclear security in Japan, the U.S. comics “swamp critter” Pogo Possum would tell you: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Let’s hope no other enemies decide to join the party — because if they do, Japan’s nuclear negligence may become the world’s problem as well.

Investigative journalist Jake Adelstein is the author of “Tokyo Vice,” a board member of Polaris Project Japan and a contributor to The Atlantic Wire and japansubculture.com. His email address is jakeadelstein@me.com.

  • GRLCowan

    ” Instead, they could just walk into a nuclear plant and leave with enough weapons-grade plutonium for a small atomic device … How?”

    Just get some, smuggle it into the plant, and smuggle it out again. Weapon-grade plutonium is much less radioactive, and therefore much harder to detect, than the plutonium in Japan’s nuclear plants. Of course, success in the in-smuggling is still not guaranteed.

    “I wish I were kidding” — no worries. “Kidding” is exactly what he’s doing. Just as tobacco lobbyists used to kid about the stuff not causing cancer and not being addictive.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ellie.austin.790 Ellie Austin

    There is no weapons-grade plutonium or dirty-bomb material at a nuclear power plant.

    • Bradley Fried

      Weapons grade, no. Dirty bomb material, plenty.

  • kufa

    Wow. Can it be true that true journalism is not dead? What a treat to hear such truths clearly stated out loud in the media. Released Wikileak documents showed that TEPCO officials, and others internationally, were clearly aware for years before 3/11 of the extremely critical dangers waiting for a disaster at the reactors in Fukushima (and, undoubtedly in all of Japan). Greed and irresponsibility motivated them to hide those dangers. They are fully responsible for the nuclear tragedy. Why aren’t they in prison? (Kufa – Louise – in Osaka)

    • Michael Radcliffe

      Um, I heard that it had something to do with a tsunami.

  • http://twitter.com/jakeadelstein Jake Adelstein

    Ellie-San
    Please tell that to the Japanese government expert panel which concluded the exact opposite–that there was a definite threat of a dirty bomb being made.

  • Will Papakostas

    “So the dirty secret that yakuza-linked workers and companies have long
    sustained Japan’s nuclear industry — along with yakuza members
    themselves, ex-convicts, wanted criminals, and drug addicts working
    there — is now public knowledge.”

    So these workers not only have to accept crappy working conditions for dangerous jobs, they also have to become the target of Mr. Adelstein’s middle class moral panic. Great.

    And about “plutonium” for a “dirty bomb” being available in a regular nuclear power plant: lol.

  • http://www.facebook.com/alan.ahn.9 Alan Ahn

    The only plutonium in a typical nuclear power plant lies within its offloaded spent fuel, which is extremely radioactive and would be at little risk of theft by rogue actors, terrorists, or even well-organized criminals. Weapons-usable plutonium could only be extracted from this spent fuel in reprocessing facilities, such as those in Tokai and Rokkasho, which have been subject to heavy international scrutiny to prevent the diversion of such material for utilization in nuclear explosive devices. The far greater danger is that unscreened employees sabotage plant operations, leading to a Fukushima-like accident; the threat of nuclear material theft at a light water reactor site for use in yield-producing weapons or dirty bombs is exceedingly small.

  • Uzza

    I wish I were kidding. Japan has more than 50 gigantic nuclear “pressure
    cookers” ripe for exploitation by terrorists. And they wouldn’t even
    have to lay siege to the facilities. Instead, they could just walk into a
    nuclear plant and leave with enough weapons-grade plutonium for a small
    atomic device — which later could be detonated wherever they chose.
    How?

    So you start off with Boston Marathon, likens it to the reactors that operate under high pressure which a person somehow magically can blow up, and then finally settle at theft of nuclear material as the threat, which have absolutely nothing to do with the reactor itself?
    That’s one of the worst pieces of journalism I’ve seen.

    The main point here seem to be the theft of nuclear materials from a plant.
    First, theft of material by an individual is completely ludicrous.
    The only material at the site is the spent fuel rods, and the fuel in the reactors. To get the reactor fuel you have to shut down the reactor and depressurize it, a process that takes days.
    The fuel in the spent fuel pool on the other hand is still radioactive enough to kill you within hours of being exposed to it. You need special equipment and transportation to move it.
    It is impossible for an individual or even a small group of people to take any material without anyone noticing. You need to take control of the facility to do this, by which point the authorities would know.

    This is besides the fact that no single commercial reactor in the world produce plutonium that is usable in a nuclear device.
    To get a working weapon you need plutonium with a purity of at minimum 93% Pu-239. Even then the, all nuclear weapon states have purity as high as 97% or more to ensure it will detonate properly.

    Sow what’s the purity in spent nuclear fuel? Less than 60%.
    To get the high purity needed you’d be required to isotopically enrich the plutonium. The problem is that this technology does not even exist because enriching plutonium is many orders of magnitude harder than enriching uranium, on top of all surrounding isotopes being highly radioactive.

    As for a dirty bomb, the effects of it would be very localized, and the blast would cause significantly more damage than the radioactive materials would do.