BUSINESS MARCH 16, 2011, 7:26 P.M. ET.Analysis
The Crisis in Japan: A Hunger for Information .
By JOHN BUSSEY
It's no easy job managing the world's worst nuclear emergency in a quarter century – particularly in Japan, where the government has a history of obfuscating and playing down crises, and this time has an errant business partner: the famously fibbing Tokyo Electric Power Co.
To be sure, government officials aren't just dealing with problems at the Fukushima nuclear facility. They're also tackling one of the biggest natural disasters in the country's history – entire towns wiped out by Friday's earthquake and tsunami. Tokyo and Tepco are understandably stretched.
Still, the crisis at Fukushima has been aggravated by the spare, often contradictory information issued by the government and Tepco, revealing what at times appears to be their own uncertainty about what's happening in the reactors.
Tuesday（3-15） was a case in point. As more explosions reverberated at the facility and radiation levels spiked in venues far from Fukushima, the government sought to reassure the public that health was not threatened. But actions spoke otherwise: Officials evacuated workers from the plant and expanded an exclusion zone around the dying reactors to 30 kilometers, helpfully advising homeowners trapped by wind-borne radioactivity to "please keep the windows shut. If you are hanging up your laundry, please do it indoors."
Tepco was particularly short on facts and long on deflection. A public hungry for information and guidance was often told: "We are still investigating the matter." At a briefing Tuesday, Tepco sought to mollify reporters with another apology.
"Are you apologizing because things have crossed a critical line?" one reporter asked.
"We simply realized that our apology was not enough and wanted to express the company's deep regrets," a company official said.
"I'm not asking about how you feel," the reporter fired back, demanding more information.
At a congressional hearing in Washington Tuesday, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said he's in close touch with the Japanese, though he too at one point noted: "There was an incident last night, we're getting conflicting reports, and we're trying to get on top of that."
Over at the Union of Concerned Scientists, which considers itself a nuclear-safety watchdog group, Edwin Lyman said "there's clearly an erratic quality to the information coming out from the Japanese," which may indicate "they don't know what's going on."
Mr. Lyman, whose field is nuclear-plant design, added this thought on the government's advice to stay indoors with the laundry: "I'm not confident that sheltering in place is appropriate. It depends a lot on the conditions of the structures, whether they're leak-tight. I would urge the authorities to be as realistic as possible" rather than taking "a complacent view of how things will turn out."
Japan has a bit of a history of complacent and bureaucratic reactions to crises. In 1995, after an earthquake hit the city of Kobe, officials were slow to respond and even blocked foreign help, at one point invoking the Medical Practitioners Law that barred doctors not licensed in Japan from administering emergency aid. For three days, 23 U.S. doctors and nurses who had flown to Kobe sat on the sidelines until politicians suspended the law.
In 1985, a Japan Airlines 747 with more than 500 passengers aboard crashed into a mountain not far from Tokyo. The government delayed getting to the site. Only a handful of passengers survived.
Japan can be a place where bad news is avoided, or played down. Some doctors still may not tell a patient that he has cancer or explain what's in a particular treatment.
So it's not surprising to see some of the same instincts playing out at Fukushima. The government this time has been much faster to allow in foreign aid and to get its own relief efforts into the field. But the inclination is still to limit information flow while asking the public to trust the government's leadership.
Then there's Tepco. The company, one of the largest utilities in the world, has had a run of problems over the years that have savaged its credibility.
Tepco in 2002 admitted to falsifying data, including safety tests, dating back to the early 1990s and including records at the Fukushima plant. At one point, it was forced to shut all of its nuclear reactors. An earlier scandal involved Tepco falsifying records in the 1980s.
In 2007, in a case that sounds hauntingly familiar, an earthquake knocked out the company's big Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear facility. Radiation leaked then too, more than the company initially acknowledged. Tepco and the government later said they underestimated the potential impact of an earthquake on the facility.
Once the dust settles in Fukushima and the details of the current emergency are understood, Tepco and the Japanese government will have to answer the Big Question:
Tepco confidently built six nuclear reactors – the Fukushima complex – overlooking a fault zone, where earthquakes and tsunamis can happen. An impatient public—in Japan and elsewhere—will want to know why that was allowed to happen in the first place.
Write to John Bussey at email@example.com