Nuclear safety: A dangerous veil of secrecy

Anti-nuclear rallies marking the attack on Hiroshima don’t distinguish between nuclear energy and weapons [Reuters]

There are battles being fought on two fronts in the five months since a massive earthquake and tsunami damaged the Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan.

On one front, there is the fight to repair the plant, operated by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) and to contain the extent of contamination caused by the damage. On the other is the public’s fight to extract information from the Japanese government, TEPCO and nuclear experts worldwide.

The former battle has yielded serious official humiliation, resulting high-profile resignations, scandals, and promises of reform in Japan’s energy industry whereas the latter has so far resulted in a storm of anger and mistrust.

Even most academic nuclear experts, seen by many as the middle ground between the anti-nuclear activists and nuclear lobby itself, were reluctant to say what was happening: That in Fukushima, a community of farms, schools and fishing ports, was experiencing a full-tilt meltdown, and that, as Al Jazeera reported in June, that the accident had most likely caused more radioactive contamination than the Chernobyl disaster 25 years ago.

Read more of our coverage of Japan’s disasters

As recently as early August, those seeking information on the real extent of the damage at the Daiichi plant and on the extent of radioactive contamination have mostly been reassured by the nuclear community that there’s no need to worry.

This is troubling because while both anti-nuclear activists and the nuclear lobby both have openly stated biases, academics and researchers are seen as the middle ground – a place to get accurate, unbiased information.

David Biello, the energy and climate editor at Scientific American Online, said that trying to get clear information on a scenario such as the Daiichi disaster is tough.

“There’s a lot of secrecy that can surround nuclear power because some of the same processes can be involved in generating electricity that can also be involved in developing a weapon, so there’s a kind of a veil of secrecy that gets dropped over this stuff, that can also obscure the truth” said Biello.

“So, for example in Fukushima, it was pretty apparent that a total meltdown had occurred just based on what they were experiencing there … but nobody in a position of authority was willing to say that.”

A high-stakes game

There’s no denying that there’s a lot of money – and power – riding on the nuclear industry.

The money trail can be tough to follow – Westinghouse, Duke Energy and the Nuclear Energy Institute (a “policy organisation” for the nuclear industry with 350 companies, including TEPCO, on its roster) did not respond to requests for information on funding research and chairs at universities.

But most of the funding for nuclear research does not come directly from the nuclear lobby, said M.V. Ramana, a researcher at Princeton University specialising in the nuclear industry and climate change. Most research is funded by governments, who get donations – from the lobby (via candidates, political parties or otherwise).

The Center for Responsive Politics – a non-partisan, non-profit elections watchdog group – noted that even as many lobbying groups slowed their spending the first quarter of the year, the Nuclear industry “appears to be ratcheting up its lobbying” increasing its multi-million dollar spending.

“In the United States, a lot of the money doesn’t come directly from the nuclear industry, but actually comes from the Department of Energy (DOE). And the DOE has a very close relationship with the industry, and they sort of try to advance the industry’s interest,” said Ramana. Indeed, nuclear engineering falls under the “Major Areas of Research” with the DOE, which also has nuclear weapons under its rubric.

The DOE’s 2012 fiscal year budge request to the US Congress for nuclear energy programmes was $755m.

“So those people who get funding from that….it’s not like they (researchers) want to lie, but there’s a certain amount of, shall we say, ideological commitment to nuclear power, as well as a certain amount of self-censorship.”  It comes down to worrying how their next application for funding might be viewed, he said.

Kathleen Sullivan, an anti-nuclear specialist and disarmament education consultant with the United Nations Office of Disarmament Affairs, said it’s not surprising that research critical of the nuclear energy and weapons isn’t coming out of universities and departments that participate in nuclear research and development.

Naoto Kan, Japan’s prime minister, vowed to challenge the “myth of safety” of nuclear power [Reuters]

“It (the influence) of the nuclear lobby could vary from institution to institution,” said Sullivan. “If you look at the history of nuclear weapons manufacturing in the United States, you can see that a lot of research was influenced perverted, construed in a certain direction.”

Sullivan points to the DOE-managed Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the University of California in Berkley (where some of the research for the first atomic bomb was done) as an example of how intertwined academia and government-funded nuclear science are.

The situation really isn’t much different in the field of nuclear energy, said Sullivan.

“It’s all part and parcel to itself.”

Of course this isn’t unique to the nuclear industry – all energy lobbies fund research one way or another. But the consequences of self-censorship when it comes to the potential downsides of nuclear energy are far more dire, than, say, for wind power.

“For nuclear physics to proceed, the only people interested in funding it are pro-nuclear folks, whether that be industry or government,” said Biello. “So if you’re involved in that area you’ve already got a bias in favour of that technology … if you study hammers, suddenly hammers seem to be the solution to everything.”

And should they find results unfavourable to the industry, Ramana said they would “dress it up in various ways by saying ‘Oh, there’s a very slim chance of this, and here are some safety measure we recommend,’ and then the industry will say, ‘Yeah,yeah, we’re incorporating all of that.'”

Ramana, for the record, said that while he’s against nuclear weapons, he doesn’t have a moral position on nuclear power except to say that as a cost-benefit issue, the costs outweigh the benefits, and that “in that sense, expanding nuclear power isn’t a good idea.”

But generally speaking, he said that nuclear researchers have a stake in reassuring the pubic that nothing bad is happening.

“‘How is this going to affect the future of nuclear power?’That’s the first thought that came into their heads,” said Ramana, adding, “They basically want to ensure that people will keep constructing nuclear power plants.”

For instance, a May report by MIT’s Center For Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems (where TEPCO funds a chair) points out that while the Daiichi disaster has resulted in “calls for cancellation of nuclear construction projects and reassessments of plant license extensions” which might “lead to a global slow-down of the nuclear enterprise,” that  “the lessons to be drawn from the Fukushima accident are different.”

Among the report’s closing thoughts are concerns that “Decision-making in the  immediate aftermath of a major crisis is often influenced by emotion,” and whether”an accident like Fukushima, which is so far beyond design basis, really warrant a major overhaul of current nuclear safety regulations and practises?”

“If so,” wonder the authors, “When is safe safe enough? Where do we draw the line?”

The Japanese public, it seems, would like some answers to those very questions, albeit from a different perspective.

Kazuo Hizumi, a Tokyo-based human rights lawyer, is among those pushing for openness. He is also an editor at News for the People in Japan, a news site advocating for transparency from the government and from TEPCO.

With contradicting information and lack of clear coverage on safety and contamination issues, many have taken to measuring radiation levels with their own Geiger counters.

“They do not know how to do it,” he said of some of the community groups and individuals who have taken to measure contamination levels in the air, soil and food.

“But mothers are worried about their children so much and Japanese government has to consider their worries.”

report released in July by Human Rights Now highlights the need for immediately accessible information on health and safety in areas where people have been affected by the disaster, including Fukushima, especially on the issues of contaminated food and evacuation plans.

A ‘nuclear priesthood’

Biello describes the nuclear industry is a relatively small, exclusive club.

“The interplay between academia and also the military and industry is very tight. It’s a small community…they have their little club and they can go about their business without anyone looking over their shoulder. ”

This might explain how, as the Associated Press reported in June, that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission was “working closely with the nuclear power industry to keep the nationalise ageing reactors operating within standards or simply failing to enforce them.”

However, with this exclusivity comes a culture of secrecy – “a nuclear priesthood,” said Biello, which makes it very difficult to parse out a straightforward answer in the very technical and highly politicised field.

“You have the proponents, who believe that it is the technological salvation for our problems, whether that’s energy, poverty, climate change or whatever else. And then you have opponents who think that it’s literally the worst thing that ever happened and should be immediately shut back up in a box and buried somewhere,” said Biello, who includes “professors of nuclear engineering and Greenpeace activists” as passionate opponents on the nuclear subject.

In fact, one is hard pressed to find a media report quoting a nuclear scientist at any major university sounding the alarms on the risks of contamination in Fukushima.

Doing so has largely been the work of anti-nuclear activists (who have an admitted bias against the technology) and independent scientists employed by think tanks, few of whom responded to requests for interviews.

Even anthropologists who study the behaviour of those working in the nuclear power industry, refused to comment on the culture of secrecy that surrounds it.

The situation is much the same in Japan, said Hizumi, with “only a few who give people true information.”

So, one’s best bet, said Biello, is to try and “triangulate the truth” – to take “a dose” from anti-nuclear activists, another from pro-nuclear lobbyists and throw that in with a little bit of engineering and that’ll get you closer to the truth.

“Take what everybody is saying with a grain of salt.”

Nobody likes bad news

Since World War II, the process of secrecy – the readiness to invoke “national security” – has been a pillar of the nuclear establishment…that establishment, acting on the false assumption that “secrets” can be hidden from the curious and knowledgeable, has successfully insisted that there are answers which cannot be given and even questions which cannot be asked.

The net effect is to stifle debate about the fundamental of nuclear policy. Concerned citizens dare not ask certain questions, and many begin to feel that these matters which only a few initiated experts are entitled to discuss.

If the above sounds like a post-Fukushima statement, it is not. It was written by Howard Morland for the November 1979 issue of The Progressive magazine focusing on the hydrogen bomb as well as the risks of nuclear energy.

The US government – citing national security concerns – took the magazine to court in order to prevent the issue from being published, but ultimately relented during the appeals process when it became clear that the information The Progressive wanted to publish was already public knowledge and that pursuing the ban might put the court in the position of deeming the Atomic Energy Act as counter to First Amendment rights (freedom of speech) and therefore unconstitutional in its use of prior restraint to censor the press.

“Exciting Nuclear Land” is part of the Japanese school curriculum

But, of course, that’s in the US, although a similar mechanism is at work in Japan, where a recently created task force aims to “cleanse” the media of reportage that casts an unfavourable light on the nuclear industry (they refer to this information as “inaccurate” or a result of “mischief.”

The government has even gone so far as to accept bids from companies that specialise in scouring the internet to monitor for online reports, Tweets and blogs that are critical of its handling of the Daiichi disaster, which has presented a unique challenge to the lobby there.

Hizumi said that the move to police online content on the disaster has upset the Japanese pubic and that the president of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations has openly criticised the policy.

“The public fully trusted the Japanese Government,” said Hizumi. But the absence of “true information” has massively diminished that trust, as, he said, has the public’s faith that TEPCO would be open about the potential dangers of a nuclear accident.

But Japan’s government has a history of slow response to TEPCO’s cover-ups. In 1989, Kei Sugaoka, a nuclear energy at General Electric who inspected and repaired plants in Japan and elsewhere, said he spotted cracks in steam dryers and a “misplacement” or 180 degrees in one dryer unit. He noticed that the position of the dryer was later omitted from the inspection record’s data sheet.

Sugaoka told a Japanese networkthat TEPCO had instructed him to “erase” the flaws, but he ultimately wrote a whistleblowing letter to METI, which resulted in the temporary 17 TEPCO reactors, including ones at the plant in Fukushima.

“I guess, just, you know, they’re not being open to the public. They should be more open to the public,” said Sugaoka.

“Everything is always kept a secret.”

But the Japanese nuclear lobby has been quite active in shaping how people see nuclear energy. The country’s Ministry of Education, together with the Natural Resources Ministry (of of two agencies under Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry – METI – overseeing nuclear policies) even provides schools with a nuclear energy information curriculum.

These worksheets – or education supplements – are used to inform children about the benefits of nuclear energy over fossil fuels.

Fukushima = Chernobyl?

Depending on who you believe, either Fukushima is another Chernobyl – in terms of the severity of the accident and risks of contamination – or it’s nothing like the 1986 disaster.

There’s reason to believe that at least in one respect, Fukushima can’t and won’t be another Chernobyl, at least due to the fact that the former has occurred in the age of the Internet whereas the latter took place in the considerably quaint 80s, when a car phone the size of a brick was considered the height of communications technology to most.

“It (a successful cover up) is definitely a danger in terms of Fukushima, and we’ll see what happens. All you have to do is look at the first couple of weeks after Chernobyl to see the kind of cover up,” said Biello.

“I mean the Soviet Union didn’t even admit that anything was happening for a while, even though everybody was noticing these radiation spikes and all these other problems. The Soviet Union was not admitting that they were experiencing this catastrophic nuclear failure… in Japan, there’s a consistent desire, or kind of a habit, of downplaying these accidents, when they happen. It’s not as bad as it may seem, we haven’t had a full meltdown.”

Fast forward to 2011, when video clips of each puff of smoke out of the Daiichi plant make it around the world in seconds, news updates are available around the clock, activists post radiation readings on maps in multiple languages and Google Translate picks up the slack in translating every last Tweet on the subject coming out of Japan.

In short, it will be a heck of a lot harder to keep a lid on things than it was 25 years ago.