As a quake-stricken Japanese nuclear plant continues to spew radiation into the environment, journalists and people across the world are getting an unwelcome lesson in how secrecy can threaten people's health and safety.
Tens or hundreds of thousands of Japanese still have little idea how much risk they face or how far they should go to protect themselves. They are left guessing. If they guess wrong, radiation sickness, cancer, and other health problems could take years to appear.
By most accounts, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the corporation that owns the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant rocked by three hydrogen explosions and probably multiple partial meltdowns, has a long record of hiding safety violations and covering up accidents. In the current emergency, journalists, the Japanese government, and governments in other countries have complained about how uninformative TEPCO releases and briefings have been.
The Japanese government's failure to inform the public about what is going on may be caused partly by TEPCO's failure to inform the government — or so it complains. But it may also be partly a symptom of years of coziness between the regulators and the nuclear industry they regulate.
The number of urgently important questions still unanswered over a week and a half after the initial quake is frighteningly large. Even more frightening is the possibility that TEPCO actually does not know the answers to them.
Have containments been breached? Have spent-fuel pools gone dry? Has fuel melted down, and to what degree? What is burning or emitting smoke — and what contaminants are in the smoke and steam? Exactly how bad is the radiation at the site? How bad is the radiation escaping from the site, and how far is it traveling? Why did the quake and tsunami shut down back-up cooling systems, and was this a failure to design for and plan against a quake-tsunami disaster? Is the onsite machinery for cooling fuel operable — even with electric power? TEPCO has shed little light on any of these questions.
After the shock of the initial quake/tsunami, a series of three explosions March 12-14 — visible from miles away — brought media the dawning of realization that something very grave was happening at the Fukushima plant. After days of struggling to get the story, the New York Times team of Hiroko Tabuchi, Ken Belson and Norimitsu Onishi finally on March 16 did the story on the withholding of information.
"Foreign nuclear experts, the Japanese press and an increasingly angry and rattled Japanese public are frustrated by government and power company officials’ failure to communicate clearly and promptly about the nuclear crisis," the Times reporters wrote. "Pointing to conflicting reports, ambiguous language and a constant refusal to confirm the most basic facts, they suspect officials of withholding or fudging crucial information about the risks posed by the ravaged Daiichi plant."
"Evasive news conferences followed uninformative briefings as the crisis intensified over the past five days," the Times wrote. "Politicians are almost completely reliant on Tokyo Electric Power, which is known as Tepco, for information, and have been left to report what they are told, often in unconvincing fashion."
By that point, both TEPCO and many Japanese government agencies were losing their credibility on the nuclear incident. Japan issued an initial order to evacuate a 10-km radius around the plant within a day of the quake — and expanded it to 20-30 km by March 15. But on March 16 the United States warned all of its citizens within a 50-mile (or 80-km) radius of the plant to evacuate.
It was a diplomatic shocker. The US was in essence declaring "no confidence" in the Japanese assessment of the nuclear crisis.
China — with perhaps even more at stake than the US — complained on March 17, calling on Japan to report unfolding risks quickly and accurately.
A common excuse reporters hear from government officials, utility spokesmen, and others responsible for public safety is that they downplay risks in order to prevent public panic — which by their (or their stockholders') calculus would be a worse outcome than untold hundreds falling ill or dying. But when press and public are already aware of a risk, lack of timely, accurate, definitive information can breed speculative or "hysterical" stories that only feed panic. That point was made by Charlie Petit at MIT's Knight Science Journalism Tracker as he covered the coverage.
There was an extra need for candor and credibility in the case of TEPCO. The Japanese press and public remembered far more clearly than US media the company's long record of scandal and deception about nuclear safety.
It was so bad that all of TEPCO's boiling-water nuclear plants were shut down in 2002 — only part of a longer chain of scandals. Here's the 2002 story as summarized by Wikipedia:
"On August 29, 2002, the government of Japan revealed that TEPCO was guilty of false reporting in routine governmental inspection of its nuclear plants and systematic concealment of plant safety incidents. All seventeen of its boiling-water reactors were shut down for inspection as a result. TEPCO's chairman Hiroshi Araki, President Nobuya Minami, Vice-President Toshiaki Enomoto, as well as the advisers Shō Nasu and Gaishi Hiraiwa stepped down by September 30, 2002. The utility 'eventually admitted to two hundred occasions over more than two decades between 1977 and 2002, involving the submission of false technical data to authorities'. Upon taking over leadership responsibilities, TEPCO's new president issued a public commitment that the company would take all the countermeasures necessary to prevent fraud and restore the nation's confidence."
- "Fukushima Nuclear Plant's Owner Is Slammed for Lacking Candor,"  Los Angeles Times, March 21, 2011, by E. Scott Reckard.
- "News Analysis: Dearth of Candor From Japan’s Leadership,"  New York Times, March 16, 2011, by Hiroko Tabuchi, Ken Belson and Norimitsu Onishi.
- "China Calls for Candor from Japan on Crisis,"  New York Times, March 17, 2011, by Sharon LaFraniere.
- "Cosmos, NYTimes (& New Yorker): On Uncontrolled and Broken Nukes, Over-Control of Information, and Media Hysteria,"  Knight Science Journalism Tracker, March 17, 2011, by Charlie Petit.
- "Bungling, Cover-Ups Define Japanese Nuclear Power,"  Associated Press, March 17, 2011, by Yuri Kageyama.
- "Credibility, Openness Issues Arise as Nuclear Crisis Deepens,"  EJToday Headlines, March 15, 2011.
- "UN Nuclear Safety Chief: Emergency Communications System Outdated,"  Environment News Service, March 21, 2011.
- "Japanese Frustrated Over Lack of Information from Government, Power Firm,"  Asian News International/Daily India, March 17, 2011.
- "Goaded To Act, Govt, Tepco Race To Defuse Nuclear Time Bomb,"  Nikkei, March 16, 2011.
- "Tepco Apologizes, But Too Late?,"  Wall St. Journal Japan Realtime blog, March 15, 2011, by Ayako Mie.
- "Like Other Commodities Information Is Lacking," New York Times, March 17, 2011, by Hiroko Tabuchi, Ken Belson, and Norimitsu Onishi.
- "U.S. Calls Radiation ‘Extremely High;’ Sees Japan Nuclear Crisis Worsening,"  New York Times, March 16, 2011, by David E. Sanger, Matthew L. Wald and Hiroko Tabuchi.
- "Japan Offers Little Response to U.S. Assessment,"  New York Times, March 17, 2011, by Norimitsu Onishi.
- "U.S. Urges Wider No-Go Area Around Nuclear Plant,"  New York Times, March 16, 2011, by Mark McDonald and Kevin Drew.
- "With Quest to Cool Fuel Rods Stumbling, U.S. Sees ‘Weeks’ of Struggle,"  New York Times, March 17, 2011, by Norimitsu Onishi, David E. Sanger and Matthew L. Wald with others.
- "Japan Extended Reactor’s Life, Despite Warning,"  New York Times, March 21, 2011, by Hiroko Tabuchi, Norimitsu Onishi, and Ken Belson.
- "IAEA Warned Japan That Quakes Could Be Too Much for Nuclear Facilities, Leaked Cable Reveals,"  Raw Story, March 16, 2011, by David Edwards.
- "Whistleblower Slams Japan Nuclear Regulation,"  Australian ABC, by Quentin McDermott.
- "Bid to 'Protect Assets' Slowed Reactor Fight,"  Wall Street Journal, March 21 2011, by Norihiko Shirouzu, Phred Dvorak, Yuka Hayashi and Andrew Morse.
- "Executives May Have Lost Valuable Time at Damaged Nuclear Plant,"  New York Times, March 19, 2011, by Ken Belson, Keith Bradsher and Matthew L. Wald.
- "Safety of Japanese Reactors Questioned Long Ago in U.S.,"  McClatchy Newspapers, March 17, 2011, by Rob Hotakainen and Greg Gordon.
- "Japan Nuke Plant Operator Missed Inspections,"  Associated Press, March 21, 2011, by Mari Yamaguchi.
- "Japan Nuclear Firm Admits Missing Safety Checks at Disaster-Hit Plant,"  Guardian, March 22. 2011, by Justin McCurry.
- "Hiranuma Sorry for Delay in Probe of Tepco Scandal,"  Japan Times, September 4, 2002.
- "Scientists Lack Complete Answers on Radiation Risk,"  Associated Press, March 18, 2011.