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Sunday, Sept. 22, 2002

MEDIA MIX

The fallout of Japan's national energy policy


In Japan, Fumiko Kometani, the wife of American screenwriter Josh Greenfeld and mother of journalist Karl Taro Greenfeld, has a reputation for being a grouch. A longtime resident of the United States, she writes for a number of Japanese publications and very rarely has anything nice to say about either her native country or her adopted one.

In one of the essays in her 2001 collection, "Nan'ya Kore? (What the Hell Is This?)," she compared the nuclear-energy policies of Japan and America. As a Japanese person who lived through the war, she feels acute unease that Japan derives a third of its electricity from nuclear power, given that the country is the only one in the world that has ever suffered a nuclear attack, not to mention the fact that the archipelago is riddled with earthquake faults.

She mentions that an "intellectual weekly magazine" once rejected one of her essays, in which she told an anecdote about getting her son's English-teaching assignment changed because the Japanese junior high school was located near a nuclear power plant. The editor of the journal, which she does not name, implied that the essay was faulty because everyone knew that Japan's nuclear power plants were very safe. "They plant special flowers nearby, which change color whenever there is even the smallest radiation leak," he told her. Kometani wondered what happens in the winter.

Later she related this story to a Japanese journalist who told her that the Japan Newspaper Association had an agreement that members would not print articles critical of the nuclear industry "because it is the national energy policy."

It's difficult to believe that Japanese newspapers would enter such an agreement. At first glance, the recent coverage of the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) scandal -- in which it was revealed that Japan's largest utility company did not report safety violations at several nuclear plants or do anything about them -- would seem to indicate that newspapers are objective about nuclear power. But, in fact, none of the coverage has been critical of nuclear energy itself; it's only been critical of the people who run Tepco.

The distinction is important. Much of the nuclear power industry's work is in the area of public relations, and according to the media, it is in that area that Tepco messed up by giving the public cause to be nervous about nuclear energy. The fallout, as it were, was serious. Part of the sudden slide in stock prices has been blamed on investors shunning power companies.

As simply the latest corporate scandal, the Tepco faux pas is unentertaining. It certainly can't compare to the Nippon Ham scandal, what with its sentimental back story (company started with one handcart), colorful characters (CEO was adopted son of founder) and familiar sidelights (baseball team).

Most citizens, in fact, would be hard put to explain just what it was that Tepco did wrong. The media has presented it as a case of lying to bureaucrats. There are certain safety rules implemented by the Industrial and Nuclear Safety Agency that Tepco did not follow to the letter, but the rules were characterized as being trivial. So trivial, in fact, that Tepco will not be punished.

According to the media, if Tepco's actions have been harmful, they've mainly been harmful to "public trust" and to other energy providers. Last November, an accident at the Hamaoka nuclear plant in Shizuoka shut down two reactors. Chubu Electric Power Co., which runs the plant, told the Asahi Shimbun that they were ready to restart the reactors but because of the scandal they are afraid that they "cannot first gain the understanding of the public."

Last May, the company sent employees door to door to homes in the vicinity to apologize and assure residents that the problems are being solved. (Because of the shutdown, the utility spends an extra 78 million yen a day on other energy sources.) Now, because of Tepco, they may have to start P.R. efforts all over again.

What's missing from this coverage is the reason that these safety measures were implemented in the first place. Implicit in a coverup is, of course, something that needs to be covered up. The media does not discuss why cracks in the protective shroud around the reactors are considered dangerous. Three years ago, JCO, a company that processes nuclear fuel, experienced a huge accident in Ibaraki Prefecture. Some people died, but it could have been much, much worse. The media, however, concentrated on JCO's operational problems rather than the potential danger. It was presented as yet another sad example of the deterioration of Japanese "professionalism," as one prominent TV commentator put it.

Was anything learned from the incident? We now have Tepco executives admitting that for the past 10 years or more, they've been papering over safety violations. A big deal, but, actually, no big deal. To make you feel better, the top men stepped down, 35 others received "administrative penalties" and, most important, your electricity bill will be cut slightly.

From Kometani's vantage point in the U.S., the JCO accident was a catastrophe of immense proportions. Foreign news programs showed horrific footage of damage that the Japanese media never broadcast. Kometani subsequently decided that there are two types of nuclear power experts in Japan. One is the type who know just how dangerous it is. The other is the type who have come to believe that nuclear power is the only clean source of energy an island country like Japan can afford, and therefore have convinced themselves that serious accidents won't happen because they haven't happened yet. It's your guess which of these types is running things.



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