Remember how the government said Japan needed a state secrets law to protect it from acts of terrorism?
Which is more dangerous: a government bureaucrat, a journalist or a worker in a nuclear power plant that may be crazy or a criminal? Answer: anyone but the nuclear power plant worker.
The Japan Federation of Bar Associations says that all government workers and sub-contractors will face invasive security checks from now on because almost all government agencies are handling documents that are categorized as state secrets. The security checks will examine a person’s criminal and disciplinary records, improper conduct in handling information, drug abuse, pyschological disorders, “moderation in drinking alcohol,” and an assessment of their credit history and financial situation.
Guess who won’t be subject to such checks? Workers at the country’s nuclear power plants and storage facilities, at least according to a recent report in the Sankei Shimbun.
Tokyo Electric Power Co. and other utilities may ask potential employees to complete a self-assessment report and conduct a background check based on the results, but they are not obliged to do so. The law now requires power companies to take anti-terrorism measures to protect against external threats but there is no requirement to establish countermeasures against threats on the inside.
In other words, the simplest way for a terrorist to gain entry into a nuclear power plant remains the same: apply for a job.
An NRA official told me that power utilities may even turn a blind eye to background checks that revealed former ties to yakuza members and other undesirables because it could create a staffing shortage.
The transparency of the country’s nuclear industry is an issue that has been debated ever since the triple-meltdown disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant in 2011. In August 2013, Reporters Without Borders welcomed a decision by Shiro Shirakawa, head of nuclear power safety company New Tech, to withdraw a libel suit against freelance journalist Minoru Tanaka.
The subject of the lawsuit was a Shukan Kinyobi article published in December 2011 that was titled “Last big fixer, Shiro Shirakawa, gets his share of the Tepco nuclear cake.” The article suggests that Shirakawa profited from acting as an intermediary between Tepco, construction companies, politicians and even criminal elements.
New Tech oversaw security for the nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, where there’s enough plutonium to make hundreds of nuclear weapons, according to the Center For Public Integrity.
In short, we’ve been asked to believe that power companies are able to handle the safety and security of nuclear facilities around the country without any government oversight. These, of course, are the same utilities that were managing nuclear plants in Fukushima, Niigata and Ibaraki prefectures when they were struck by accidents that led to radioactive leaks and/or fatalities.
It might be different if any negligence is followed up by criminal penalties, but I suspect this is unlikely. The Prosecutor’s Office has so far declined to file criminal charges against anyone at Tepco over allegations of negligence that have surfaced in the wake of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Two workers did drown while checking the status of generators located in the basement of the No. 4 reactor building after it had been swamped by the waves.
The Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission found the nuclear disaster was a “profoundly manmade disaster that … should have been foreseen and prevented.” Although no deaths followed short-term radiation exposure immediately after the quake, researchers from Fukushima Medical University found that more than 50 children in the area have developed thyroid cancer since the accident. Masao Yoshida, chief of the plant during the crisis, might have been able to provide evidence to prosecutors but he died of esophageal cancer in July 2013. The rapid spread of the disease following diagnosis allowed Tepco to say it was unrelated to the nuclear accident.
In July 2103, a judicial panel of citizens recommended that three former Tepco executives should be prosecuted over the nuclear disaster. The report prompted the Prosecutor’s Office to resume investigations but ultimately decided not to indict anyone over the crisis, leaking the decision on the day Tokyo was awarded the 2020 Olympics and, effectively, burying the story.
In future, the state secrets law is likely to make such news even easier to hide. So why it was necessary to draft secrecy legislation in the first place?
“Let me assure you the situation is under control,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in a speech to the International Olympic Committee in Buenos Aires on Sept. 7, 2013, referring to contaminated groundwater problems at the site of the disaster. Tokyo was awarded the 2020 Games after the presentation.
Six days later, Kazuhiko Yamashita, a senior executive at Tepco, disputed Abe’s claim during a meeting in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture. “We regard the current situation as not being under control,” Yamashita said.
A few months later, the state secrets bill was bulldozed through the Diet. All of this makes me think the secrecy law hasn’t been drafted to fight terrorism, it’s been created to ensure things are under control — not so much the nuclear problem, but how the media report on the nuclear problem. While Fukushima may not be under control, the media certainly is.
Abe now claims his resounding election victory has given him a mandate to restart the nuclear reactors. Meanwhile, media outlets nationwide are now no longer able to report on security surrounding the plants and may not even be told how much radioactive waste is still leaking into the ocean.
It’s arguable the glowing look on Abe’s face after winning an election in which a little more than 50 percent of the population voted has less to do with the size of his victory and more to do with the fact that he no longer has to face difficult questions he feels uncomfortable with. Take, for example, the way he removed his earpiece when talking to journalists in a live interview following his election victory — he seems perfectly happy not listening. If, God forbid, someday another nuclear meltdown warning siren goes off, will he hear it? And if he does, will he tell us?
Dark Side of the Rising Sun is a monthly column that takes a behind-the-scenes look at news in Japan.