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Secrets bill raises fears among nuclear foes

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

In late 2005, U.S. government officials, invited by Japan, observed a counterterrorism drill at the Mihama nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture and came away worried about the security situation at the complex.

Some 2,000 police officers, firefighters, nuclear power officials, local authorities and residents were involved in the exercise, in which the plant comes under attack by foreign terrorists who entered the harbor by boat.

The focus of much of the drill was on evacuating residents, but the U.S. officials were more concerned about what they felt were security gaps. This led Washington to push Tokyo to pay more attention to physically protecting the facilities.

Today, as the Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling bloc prepares to enact a new state secrets law, the question of what happens to information about nuclear plant security is being batted about, especially in Kansai.

Fukui Prefecture is home to 13 commercial reactors, all of which, before the recent shutdown, provided power to distant Osaka and Hyogo prefectures, as well as neighboring Kyoto and Shiga.

It is also home to the Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor. Originally designed to burn plutonium, Monju has been idle for nearly two decades after a sodium leak from a cooling unit and the resulting fire on Dec. 8, 1995, made headlines, along with the attempt to cover it up.

Video shot inside the plant by the operator showing the extent of the damage was initially hidden, leaving it to the prefecture to uncover the truth.

“In 1995, Fukui Prefecture courageously entered the Monju fast-breeder reactor accident site and videotaped the damage, thus revealing the coverup undertaken by the owner/operator. Passage of the state secrets bill would inhibit or prevent local authorities from taking such action again,” said Kyoto-based anti-nuclear activist Aileen Mioko Smith.

The government says the purpose of the secrets bill is to prevent damaging leaks of information vital to national defense and diplomacy, and to prevent spies and terrorists from acquiring such sensitive information. In a blog, Upper House Councilor Yosuke Isozaki of the LDP recently took a jab at people who are concerned that information related to nuclear power plants would be classified.

“Under the basic law, information can be classified to prevent terrorism. This means information related to the investigation of terrorist activities. Even people who have just a little bit of knowledge about the law should instantly understand when they read the (secrets bill) that it doesn’t apply to nuclear power information,” Isozaki wrote.

But that raises the fundamental question of who, exactly, gets to judge what constitutes a terrorist activity at a nuclear plant and how they would make decisions about classifying information based on that judgment.

In late October, at a meeting of opposition lawmakers, Ken Hashiba of the Cabinet Office said at a public hearing on the bill that it was possible information related to the security of nuclear power facilities could become classified. This appeared to be a more general statement than Isozaki’s.

For their part, many in the Kansai region and elsewhere remain concerned.

“There have already been 359 instances where the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has used the excuse of protecting nuclear materials (to not release information) and 449 cases where the Nuclear Regulation Authority has designated documents as secret,” the daily Kyoto Shimbun said in a recent editorial.

The paper warned there was lots of room for the government to expand the “terrorism-related” category to things like evacuation plans or the routes to be used when nuclear fuel is transported by land or sea, often through crowded municipalities. Anti-nuclear activists often keep track of fuel shipments to and from the Fukui plants.

The worries in Kansai were heightened in early October when the Fukushima Prefectural Assembly warned it was possible that, under the guise of preventing terrorism, the government would use the new law to designate atomic plant problems or information that could protect residents as classified, especially in an emergency.

“Because information from the System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information (SPEEDI) network was not appropriately disclosed (after the 3/11 quake), some of the residents in Namie were evacuated to an area with high radiation,” the assembly said in a statement, referring to one of the Fukushima Prefecture towns contaminated by radioactive fallout from the March 2011 core meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant.

The SPEEDI network is a series of monitoring stations around the country that sound the alarm when large amounts of radioactive material are emitted by power plants or other atomic facilities. In an emergency, METI, the NRA and local governments would be responsible for warning residents about dosage levels.

Officially, however, local government heads in the Kansai region have yet to address the issue. Most remain focused not on the secrets bill or nuclear power itself, but on what they will have to do to deal with an emergency involving Fukui’s reactors.

Shiga Prefecture recently simulated a nuclear accident at one of the Fukui plants and learned that there might not be enough fresh water in storage to cope with the loss of a fallout-tainted Lake Biwa, which provides drinking water for 14.5 million people.

Other Kansai governments, however, are more concerned about a bigger question: how to coordinate a widespread evacuation.

While the apparent lack of transparency on nuclear safety measures under the secrets bill has been widely discussed, receiving less attention is the question of whether ordinary citizens who are involved in anti-nuclear protests might be targeted and investigated under the new law, or whether the heads of local government that host reactors will find their demands for data on plant operations or costs blocked in the name of “terrorism.”

“In the past, Japanese utilities cooperated with the police to identify, isolate and observe members of the Japanese Communist Party and their supporters. But most of these efforts at ideological discrimination were ruled to be in violation of the Constitution,” Fukui Prefectural Assemblyman Masao Sato of the JCP wrote on his official blog.

Many nuclear power employees either belong to, or support, the JCP. They have often helped bring to light information about problems at the plants. Saito fears the new secrets bill will empower the police to crack down further on their efforts.

“It’s clear that security information at nuclear power plant facilities will be classified as secret. But it’s also possible that under the pretext of doing a background check, the families and friends of nuclear plant workers will be tracked and the information gathered on them will be kept secret,” he said.

Kansai Perspective appears on the fourth Monday of each month, focusing on Kansai-area developments and events of national importance with a Kansai connection.