WikiLeaks Cables Used to Dig on Japan Quake

An interesting development on the media front of the Japan quake-tsunami-nuclear disaster: some British newspapers are using WikiLeaks’s U.S. embassy cables to report on just how much warning the Japanese government may have had that such a triple-threat disaster was a possibility.

The Guardian ran one such report Monday, headlined “Japan radiation leaks feared as nuclear experts point to possible cover-up.” The article, by reporters John Vidal and Damian Carrington, centered on the debate about whether the Japanese government has been forthcoming in providing information about the fast-changing situation at Fukushima Daiichi, and used an October 2008 U.S. embassy cable to show that there might be a history to such behavior. Carrington and Vidal report:

In a newly released diplomatic cable obtained by WikiLeaks, politician Taro Kono, a high-profile member of Japan’s lower house, tells US diplomats that the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry - the Japanese government department responsible for nuclear energy - has been “covering up nuclear accidents and obscuring the true costs and problems associated with the nuclear industry”.

In 2008, Kono told them: “The ministries were trapped in their policies, as officials inherited policies from people more senior to them, which they could then not challenge.” He mentioned the dangers of natural disasters in the context of nuclear waste disposal, citing Japan’s “extensive seismic activity, and abundant groundwater, and [he] questioned if there really was a safe place to store nuclear waste in the ‘land of volcanoes’.”

The same cable, which The Guardian has put online, also mentioned that Kono “is relatively young, and very outspoken, especially as a critic of the government’s nuclear policy. During this meeting, he voiced his strong opposition to the nuclear industry in Japan, especially nuclear fuel reprocessing, based on issues of cost, safety, and security.”

Today, another British newspaper, The Telegraph, used a 2008 cable documenting a meeting of the G8’s Nuclear Safety and Security Group in Tokyo to report that an unnamed official “from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in December 2008 that safety rules were out of date and strong earthquakes would pose a ‘serious problem’ for nuclear power stations.” Steven Swinford and Christopher Hope report:

A US embassy cable obtained by the WikiLeaks website and seen by The Daily Telegraph quoted an unnamed expert who expressed concern that guidance on how to protect nuclear power stations from earthquakes had only been updated three times in the past 35 years.

The document states: “He [the IAEA official] explained that safety guides for seismic safety have only been revised three times in the last 35 years and that the IAEA is now re-examining them.

“Also, the presenter noted recent earthquakes in some cases have exceeded the design basis for some nuclear plants, and that this is a serious problem that is now driving seismic safety work.”

The cables also disclose how the Japanese government opposed a court order to shut down another nuclear power plant in western Japan because of concerns it could not withstand powerful earthquakes.

The court ruled that there was a possibility local people might be exposed to radiation if there was an accident at the plant, which was built to out of date specifications and only to withstand a “6.5 magnitude” earthquake. Last Friday’s earthquake, 81 miles off the shore of Japan, was a magnitude 9.0 tremor.

The cables may or may not be particularly damning—they are essentially records of dissenting opinions. But it is interesting to see that the WikiLeaks cables are finding a place in the story, just as they did in recent revolutions in the Middle East. We will keep an eye out for any cable-based Japan stories coming out; if you see any, let us know.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , , , ,