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Nuclear whistle-blower spills secrets the way the media should

by Philip Brasor

In September, Kodansha published the novel “Genpatsu Whiteout,” which continues to climb the best-seller list, propelled by a guessing game over the identity of its pseudonymous first-time author, Retsu Wakasugi.

Genpatsu means “nuclear reactor,” and the book describes a fictional terrorist attack on a power plant that leads to a meltdown. Though it sounds like a conventional thriller, the novel’s overarching theme is the government’s determination to resume the nation’s nuclear power network after the Fukushima accident, a mission it carries out so heedlessly that it neglects to enact safety standards that would mitigate the effects of such an attack.

Readers were quick to note that Wakasugi seems to know a lot about the inner workings of not only the government, but also the electric utility structure. He (or she) was obviously writing from experience, and the media concluded he was a bureaucrat, though it isn’t clear which organization he works for. The Mainichi Shimbun assumes it is the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, and that Wakasugi holds “a senior post of, at minimum, division director.” Though The Wall Street Journal called the book an “anti-nuke novel,” Mainichi reporter Takao Yamada found the tone “cynical” and the viewpoint ambiguous.

Last week, Tokyo Shimbun, the most liberal of the national dailies and the harshest mainstream press critic of the Liberal Democratic Party’s nuclear energy policy, scored a major coup by running an interview with Wakasugi. The reporter establishes a cloak-and-dagger mood by not revealing the meeting place and describing Wakasugi as being tense and paranoid, “cautiously looking around the rendezvous location” and wearing “a white shirt, simple necktie and dark suit” — apparel “of no special distinction.” Though he is careful not to give away too much, the reporter says that Wakasugi graduated from the University of Tokyo with a law degree and passed the civil-service examination for a career-track job, meaning he can be promoted to a management position, but he doesn’t say what Wakasugi does.

However, the author points out during the interview that “all public workers exchange information on a daily basis” in the process of formulating policy, regardless of the ministry they work for or their particular field of expertise. “This information circulates around me all the time,” Wakasugi says, calculating that half of what he wrote he heard directly from people involved and the other half “from secondhand sources.” But he insists that all of it is true, even if he decided that it was more “appropriate” to present it in novel form.

It’s evident that Wakasugi, while agreeing with former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s recent pronouncements regarding Japan’s avoidance of the nuclear-waste storage problem, isn’t an anti-nuclear activist. He calls himself a “cautious” supporter of nuclear energy. What prompted him to write the book was the “monstrous system” of collusion between politicians, bureaucrats and power utilities to restart reactors “as soon as possible” without addressing public concern. This attitude gave rise to a “seething anger” he couldn’t suppress.

In the book, he explains how power companies routinely set contracted prices for materials and construction at about 10 percent above their market value. These margins are then allocated to nominally independent organizations that donate the money to politicians, whose funding reports only mention the organizations’ names, not the power companies that set them up.

It’s a perfectly legal practice, and hardly a secret, given how long it’s been going on and how prevalent it is. Of course, the public pays for these bribes in the form of higher utility bills, but what’s insidious about the system is how it now applies to the so-called liberalization of electricity distribution.

On Nov. 13, the Diet passed a revised Electricity Commerce Law that will supposedly allow for the separation of enterprises that transport electricity from those that generate it. Right now regional power companies control both operations, which is why startup energy suppliers have such a hard time making a profit, since they have to pay these utilities to use their power lines. Liberalization should lead to greater efficiency and competition, and presumably lower prices.

In the book, however, the law is presented as a screen devised by the trade ministry to fool the public into believing that the utilities are being restructured, the idea being that the average person will become more amenable to the inevitable restarting of reactors. Wakasugi says no such restructuring will happen because the law has so many built-in loopholes.

But he is most disturbed by the government’s continuing lax safety standards. In Europe, core catchers — devices that limit fallout in the event of a meltdown — are required on all reactors, but Japanese utilities think they’re too expensive, so the government doesn’t even talk about them. The novel shows that current evacuation plans are useless and backup generators for cooling overheated reactors in the case of power outages remain vulnerable to sabotage and natural disasters.

The book also comments indirectly on the LDP’s proposed confidentiality bill, which will punish government whistleblowers who reveal state secrets. A worker for a nuclear regulatory agency leaks information to a TV reporter and both are arrested and prosecuted under current laws. Wakasugi shows how the authorities “decide arbitrarily what is a secret” and then the courts “always acknowledge their interpretation.”

Wakasugi is the sort of person the confidentiality bill is designed to suppress, even if what he’s exposing doesn’t qualify as a state secret. He is revealing improper and perhaps illegal actions on the part of public servants, and the irony is that the media are beside themselves trying to find out who he is, oblivious to the implication that he’s already done what they are supposed to be doing every day.

  • rontokyo

    I’m afraid I don’t quite understand the below paragraph, particularly the sentence beginning with “These margins.” Could you please more clearly explain the meaning. Much appreciated.

    “In the book, he explains how power companies routinely set contracted
    prices for materials and construction at about 10 percent above their
    market value. These margins are then allocated to nominally independent organizations that donate the money to politicians . . .”

    • 151E

      The power companies hide their bribes to politicians by overpaying for materials. “These margins” refers to the difference between the actual market price and the inflated price, which is then used as a slush fund from which financial “donations” are given to politicians through superficially independent organizations. Hope that helps.