My Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE Column 38, April 5, 2011: “Letting radiation leak, but never information”


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The Japan Times Tuesday, April 5, 2011
Letting radiation leak, but never information


March 2011 has shaken Japan to the core. The earthquake, tsunami and nuclear incident in Fukushima have given the world cause to pause and reflect on the fragility and hubris of human existence. My condolences to the victims, and their families and friends.

But it’s time for some assessments, however premature.

First, some praise. I thought the government did a much better job than in the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. Back then, several days passed before Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama and the military arrived on the scene, due to collapsed infrastructure and communication snafus. Yet while thousands of people lay dying in rubble, our government famously rejected aid from overseas. They refused provisions and medicine from nearby American aircraft carriers, even tying up Swiss sniffer dogs in quarantine. People died from the bureaucracy’s belief that Japan was too rich and developed to need foreign help.

This time, however, Prime Minister Naoto Kan was on the scene with rescue teams almost immediately. Although Kan did resort to traditional rhetoric of “We Japanese saving ourselves” in his speeches (a callously ethnocentric way to ask Japan’s residents to dig deep emotionally), overseas aid was accepted with fanfare and gratitude. I thought Kan did the best he could, given the information at the government’s disposal.

But here endeth the praise. As Fukushima’s nuclear reactors become Japan’s perpetually burning tire-yard fire, they have laid bare the fundamental flaw of Japan’s “nanny state”: the assumption that “father knows best” and that the public are children incapable of dealing with potentially dangerous situations. The reflexive, obsessive control of information has done our people a great disservice.

Let’s start with the Tokyo Electric Power Co. They kept us woefully underinformed (to put it mildly) about the stricken reactors. Some may say that leaking limited information is standard operating procedure for the nuclear industry worldwide (justified under “avoiding public panic”), but this was not mere lipstick on a wasteful political boondoggle — it was a potential China Syndrome (or would that be South Atlantic Syndrome in this case?). And since the fallout could not be contained domestically, the story came under more demanding global standards of scrutiny.

Tragically, Tepco kept such a tight lid on information that not only was our government kept in the dark, but so were worldwide nuclear experts. This caused burgeoning speculation, a slow-breeder panic and a media meltdown poisoned by gross mutations of logic.

The increasingly senile governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, called the disaster “divine intervention” for Japan’s “egoism” (he later apologized; now let’s have a public retraction of his 2000 speech claiming that heinous foreigners would riot during natural disasters like these). Governments began to disagree on the definition of “safe distance” from Fukushima, while Japan adjusted “safe levels of radiation exposure” to suit political expediency.

While Japan’s media cartels as usual skimped on investigative journalism, overseas and online media, running on fumes, had no choice but to fill in the gaps. When some foreign reportage became sensationalist, proponents of nuclear power utilized it to sow doubt and dissent. Commentators were derided as fearmongers for presenting the heresy that nuclear power might not be so safe after all. Eventually, if the information had not been sourced from the nuclear industry itself, it was interpreted as suspicious, culturally insensitive, even anti-Japanese.

Criticism shifted from those who caused this incident to those who wanted to do something about it. People moving to a safer location were treated as deserters. The exasperated public began to tune out and adopt a sense of futility and fatalism, even as radiation levels rose and contaminated the food chain.

Fortunately, given time, all this should pass. But one lingering afterglow will be a feeling of betrayal of the public trust.

We were told that nuclear power was safe. One assumes, not unreasonably, that this means no leaks. Zero emissions. Hence, the public should have zero tolerance for any man-made radiation. We should reject ex post facto reassurances that this amount of millisieverts is insignificant, the same as an X-ray, an airplane flight, etc. Sometimes the government’s advice was so unscientific that it tried the patience of an educated society. (In a land of poorly insulated housing, being told to “just stay indoors” is clearly stopgap.)

My point is that the public has been kept in the dark for generations about the risks of nuclear power, settling for cute cartoon characters that deliberately and persistently underinform us. Yet when the industry screws up, who takes the fallout?

Not Japan’s nuclear firms. Tepco, remember, similarly botched things after radiation leaks at Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture, in 1999 and the Kashiwazaki- Kariwa plant in Niigata Prefecture in 2007. Yet these Homer Simpsons remain in charge, despite, according to Wikileaks, repeated warnings from overseas specialists about their outmoded and lackluster safety standards (in a land of extreme seismic activity, no less). In a society that, if anything, overcompensates in the name of safety, why is nuclear energy such a glowing exception?

Nor will the government be held accountable, despite abetting coverups, preventing more leaks of information than of radiation, and rarely coming clean about nuclear power’s dirty secrets. Part of it is due to the lack of class-action lawsuit mechanisms in Japan’s judiciary, and the fact that judges almost never rule against the government.

But most of it is rooted in one simple historical fact: The state always wins in Japan. Because it always has.

This is a society, remember, that has never experienced a popular grassroots revolution in its history. The result is that less cultural value is placed on fairness and social justice, more on personal perseverance and knuckling under — even if that means the environment gets poisoned and people die, either as volunteer fire department heroes or as silent victims after long-term radiation exposure. Afterward, we’ll salute and mourn those who sacrificed themselves for the system, feeling sad for them but grateful that it didn’t happen to us. It’s a cost of living in Japan.

One would hope that Fukushima would occasion review and reform. But I doubt it will. Fukushima has illuminated how the biggest problems facing Japan will not get fixed — because the public cannot or will not force the state to take responsibility for its mistakes. Ultimately, this is what breeds Japan’s undying fatalism.

Debito Arudou’s new novel “In Appropriate” is now on sale; see Twitter @arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month. Send comments on this issue to

NB: Comments are open, but comments that do not stick to the points raised in this article, or add anything substantially new to the previous discussions on these issues we’ve had on in the past, will not be approved. Sorry.

10 comments on “My Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE Column 38, April 5, 2011: “Letting radiation leak, but never information”

  • “In a society that, if anything, overcompensates in the name of safety, why is nuclear energy such a glowing exception?”

    Here’s my take, Debito: Japan cares about safety mostly when it gives the government a chance to expand and reinforce its control over the actions of individual people, the better to keep them trained to obey its commands: Don’t rush for your train. Turn off your keitai near the priority seats. Don’t exceed the (ridiculously low) speed limits when you’re driving. Don’t get your fingers caught in the elevator doors. And so forth.

    Japan does not care so much about safety when it’s a matter of a big business causing the harm. Businesses are important; people less so. Indeed, Japan has a long and sad history of letting businesses harm people by polluting the environment and doing very little to punish them afterwards. I am sure you are familiar with the Ashio copper mine, or Minamata disease.

  • Debito,

    Thanks for really getting to the heart of the matter. One can debate whether or not “people get the government they deserve.” But why does Japan’s leadership more or less get away with the things it does–year after year, scandal after scandal, betrayal after betrayal of the “public trust”? It’s precisely because of unfailing public trust, expressed through passivity, acquiescence and non-involvement of the citizenry in the political process at the grassroots.

    Not that social movements are always successful. But the simple fact is governments require the consent of the governed. Likewise, a lone general on a battlefield can yell “charge” all he or she wants, but if the troops don’t show up, the war has to be called off. The question is, will Japan ever move toward a more participatory democracy.

    I submit that almost everything about Japanese culture and its institutions discourage this. The culture itself has to change to incorporate more diversity and essentially redefine what it means to be Japanese. A massive influx of foreigners who eventually nationalize would really shake up the status quo in a positive way (although the road might be rocky). Isn’t this why resistance to immigration is so entrenched–because it represents a threat to Japanese identity, particularly the identity and status of the powerful?

  • But, ‘stay indoors’ is pretty damn good advice. The danger isn’t from emitted radiation but from radioactive material (dust, gases, etc). Any somewhat-airtight shelter will protect you from the worst of it – 10cm of air is enough to block alpha radiation, but if you breathe in an alpha emitter you’ll have serious problems.

    One of the issues is that nuclear power is too advantageous not to utilize, fear and/or concerns over it stops new plants from being built while considerably more unsafe designs continue to operate (ie, second gen BWR reactors designed and built in the 1960s – like the reactors in question).

    — Then again, there’s the issue of gamma radiation. But I’m no expert.

  • >But most of it is rooted in one simple historical fact: The state always wins in Japan. Because it always has.

    That is not true. There are number of cases in which the state lost. A recent one I remember is about gift tax of an ex-president of a consumer credit company Takefuji. The Supreme Court ruled that the state must refund 133 billion yen (!) plus interest at 5% pa on it. That amount is more than the total annual gift tax revenue of Japan. (Supreme Court 2nd Panel, February 18, 2011, Case Number H19(gyo-ko)215)

    Always? No way.

  • I didn’t post on the previous earthquake/reactor related threads, but I was also one of those who felt critical of the previous information. However, I felt this was an excellent Just Because article, absolutely hitting the nail on the head. What always fascinates me is how some people will go on and on about how you can’t trust corporations, while others go on and on about how you can’t trust the government.

    News flash, you shouldn’t trust either of them!

    There is genuine anger and frustration being expressed on the news right now by Japanese from all walks of life. How do we keep this momentum going to perhaps achieve some needed change and create more accountability, before we risk it returning to apathy?

  • Japan says dumping radioactive water in ocean doesn’t violate law
    Kyodo News/Japan Today Tuesday 05th April, 06:40 PM JST

    FUKUSHIMA — The Japanese government on Tuesday defended its dumping of massive low-level radioactive water from the crisis-hit Fukushima nuclear plant, saying the action does not violate international laws, and pledged to fully inform the international community of Tokyo’s steps to tackle the ongoing emergency.

    Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto said at a press conference that Tokyo had briefed diplomatic corps in Japan on the start of radioactive water disposal hours before the plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) began releasing the liquid into the Pacific Ocean on Monday evening.

    The minister stressed that the discharge poses ‘‘no significant health threats’’ to human bodies, but said Tokyo will explain to other countries about the background of measures taken at the Fukushima plant, where the nation’s worst nuclear crisis is unfolding following the March 11 massive earthquake and tsunami.

    He also said the dumping does not violate the 1986 Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident, which obligates nations to provide data such as the accident’s time, location and radiation releases to affected states when harmful trans-boundary radiation release is feared.

    The treaty also encourages voluntary reporting of accidents that do not meet the criteria for mandatory notification. Matsumoto said Tokyo has notified the International Atomic Energy Agency of the radiation leak in accordance with the pact.

    Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano separately said Japan contacted the IAEA rather than individual neighbors because the water has been released from the plant on the Pacific coast. The top government spokesman also said the discharge would ‘‘not cause immediate radioactive contamination in neighboring countries.’‘

    Matsumoto also said Japan has been making its best efforts to minimize the sea contamination in line with the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

    Meanwhile, a total of 60,000 tons of radioactive water is believed to be flooding the basement of reactor buildings and underground trenches connected to them at the crisis-hit Fukushima nuclear plant, the industry minister said Tuesday, adding that its operator will later remove the liquid obstructing recovery work.

    TEPCO began dumping low-level radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean on Monday as an emergency step to secure room for the storage of more highly contaminated water. TEPCO aims to dispose of a total of 11,500 tons of low-level tainted water into the sea by this weekend from the plant on the coast.

    Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Banri Kaieda maintained that contamination of the sea to be caused by the disposal will pose no major health risk, while apologizing for raising concerns among the public, especially fishermen.

    In another sign that contamination is affecting the marine environment, however, radioactive cesium exceeding the maximum allowable limit was detected in young launce taken Monday in the sea near the northern part of Ibaraki Prefecture, the prefecture’s fishery cooperative said. It is the first time that contamination levels in seafood have exceeded the limit.

    The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said the 60,000 tons of water—20,000 tons each from the Nos. 1-3 reactor buildings and trenches—will be stored in tanks at the units, a facility for nuclear waste disposal at the site, an artificial floating island called a ‘‘megafloat,’’ U.S. Navy barges and provisional tanks.

    The complex for nuclear waste disposal can accommodate 30,000 tons of such water but it will take a while before it can store the liquid because TEPCO will try to ensure that radioactive water will not leak from the facility by using coating agents, the agency said.

    The provisional tanks will be shipped to the Fukushima plant by the end of this month, it added.

    Meanwhile, TEPCO began work Tuesday afternoon to stop the leakage into the sea of highly radioactive water believed to be originating from the No. 2 reactor’s core, where fuel rods have partially melted.

    The water containing radioactive iodine-131 more than 10,000 times the legal concentration limit has been leaking from a cracked seaside pit connected to the No. 2 reactor turbine building.

    In a new finding, TEPCO said a seawater sample taken Saturday near the No. 2 reactor’s water intake showed the iodine-131 concentration at 7.5 million times the maximum allowable level under law.

    To halt the flow of radioactive water, the operator injected ‘‘water glass,’’ or sodium silicate, shortly after 3 p.m. into graveled areas beneath the pit’s bottom, where radioactive water is believed to be seeping through.

    The utility has tried to block the radioactive water leakage with concrete and water-absorbing polymeric materials, but its efforts have so far been unsuccessful.

    TEPCO has also poured in white bath agents to trace the route of the leakage but colored water did not emerge from the seaside pit, leaving the path of contamination unknown.

    Removal of tainted water is necessary to reduce the risk of workers being exposed to radioactive substances and facilitate efforts to restore vital cooling functions to cool down the reactors and spent nuclear fuel pools at the site, which was ravaged by the devastating March 11 quake and tsunami.

    The utility has been pouring massive amounts of water into the reactors and their spent nuclear fuel pools as a stopgap measure to cool them down, because serious damage to the fuel rods from overheating could lead to the release of enormous amounts of radioactive materials into the environment.

    However, the measure is believed to be linked to the possible leak of highly contaminated water from the reactors.

  • Hi, I thought I would repost my comment from Facebook here. This is just important enough to me that I thought I would spread it around a little bit.

    So, I’m a nuclear engineer. And a Debito fan. I’m happy to see several perspectives you voiced, as they really had not been vocalized quite like you managed. I’m racking up on bookmarks labeled “everyone hates Tepco”, and you’ve offered …about the most stinging editorial on them.

    I do have some problems with your anti-nuclear positions. For one, let’s get the record straight that people have been informed about radiation levels far better than Three Mile Island or Chernobyl (thank God). I’m not saying Tepco deserves any praise for this, but Japan has a much better system in place for real time monitoring and broadcasting data about their plants than the U.S., I want to hear what your explanation for this is. Let me know if you need specifics.

    Any discussion you can have about nuclear is going to be a non-starter at this statement: “We were told that nuclear power was safe. One assumes, not unreasonably, that this means no leaks. Zero emissions.” This is nuclear exceptionalism. What other activity do you hold to this standard? Or was it because someone sold it to you as being Safe with a capital S and free of all emissions. If so, I hope you can abandon those ill-conceived notions when dealing with those of us (nuclear industry people) who are forthcoming about the technology.

    — Ah, but you see, nuclear “activity” is not like other “activities” (or industries). And a nuclear “accident” is not like other “accidents”. It is a Pandora’s Box of deadly danger that lasts for generations and poisons the environment worldwide. And as this series of “accidents” prove, as far as I’m concerned, “nuclear exceptionalism” is warranted because it is an exceptional “activity” with exceptional risks and dangers. Doubly so when the agents of this industry keep us uninformed or ill-informed. But again, you’re the expert.

  • Debito,

    As a recent critic, I also wanted to say that I *mostly* like this piece. But really, you are still drinking the kool-aid with this “deadly danger” hyperbole. It just isn’t true. All the most serious accidents in the world over the last 50 years amounts to a spit in the bucket of deaths due to coal mining (as just one example). By all means criticise TEPCO and the govt for their failings, but the sky really is not falling down.

  • It is a Pandora’s Box of deadly danger that lasts for generations and poisons the environment worldwide.

    Leaving aside the accuracy of this statement – what about the Oil, Gas and Coal power plants that actually are changing the environment worldwide – changes that will last for millennia and affect food production severely?

    — I’ll let this riposte stand. But I don’t really want this blog to go any farther with this thread. There are plenty of other sites out there with discussions on this.

  • “Sometimes the government’s advice was so unscientific that it tried the patience of an educated society.”

    Unscientific according to who? Nuclear experts around the world generally agreed that the measures suggested by the government were adequate.

    The government’s advice might have tried the patience of an educated society, but unless that society was educated in the field of nuclear physics I don’t think their opinion would count for very much. Science is often counterintuitive, and lacking the expertise and training to make independant sound judgements yourself on any given situation, it’s more logical and productive to heed the advice of people who do have the requisite expetise and training.


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