Japan’s Nuclear Power Plants and Information Disclosure

9 November 2012

By Lawrence Repeta

Repeta teaches law at Meiji University and is a regular FreedomInfo.org contributor.

The following report on a seminar includes information one speaker’s proposal that the Tokyo Electric Company, which operates several major nuclear power plants, be covered by Japan’s information disclosure law.

He writes:

The political stalemate described in my post of September 22, 2011, has remained unchanged.  Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda reached a significant milestone in late August by continuing in office for a full year.  By recent standards, this is a noteworthy achievement.  Japan has been led by no fewer than seven different PMs since 2005.

Throughout Noda’s term, opposition political parties have continued to demand that the parliament be dissolved and new elections held, but they have been unable to muster the parliamentary majority needed to force him to act.  The opposition has held enough votes to block Noda Administration legislative proposals, however, so the bill to revise Japan’s information disclosure law submitted to parliament on April 22, 2011 has remained untouched.

While the legislators have been preoccupied with political wrangling, members of Access Info Clearinghouse Japan (AICJ) and other Japanese open government activists have continued their efforts to use the existing laws to demand inform and to lobby for reform.  On Sept. 22, 2012, AICJ took a big step forward in this effort by organizing Japan’s first commemoration of International Right to Know Day.

Nuclear Power Plants and Information Disclosure — the World Before and After Fukushima

To celebrate International Right to Know Day, the nonprofit open government group Access-Info Clearinghouse Japan (AICJ) (www.clearing-house.org) organized a forum titled “Nuclear Power Plants and Information Disclosure — the World Before and After Fukushima.” The event was held at Meiji University, a private institution in central Tokyo, on Saturday, September 22.

The Crisis

As readers know, Japan suffered the effects of a series of massive earthquakes and tsunami in March 2011. These natural disasters severely damaged several nuclear power plants operated by the Tokyo Electric Company (TEPCO). Design and operational shortcomings at these plants led to a total loss of electrical power, the meltdowns of three nuclear reactors, and the release of vast amounts of radioactive material across a broad swath of northeastern Japan. The government has ordered the evacuation of approximately 85,000 people and many tens of thousands have left the affected area of their own accord. The government, residents of affected areas, and others continue to struggle to find measures to address decontamination, compensation, the rebuilding of communities, and other issues left in the wake of the disaster.

Low Transparency Standards

The nuclear crisis exposed the very low transparency standards applied by Japan’s government agencies. There were no minutes or other records kept of a series of critical meetings of senior officials to decide the government’s response to the emergency. At times government agencies withheld information concerning the condition of the damaged reactors and the dispersal of radioactive materials, endangering residents near the nuclear reactors. For decades the government had followed a program of persuading the public to accept nuclear power rather than providing the information necessary for people to assess the risks and benefits of Japan’s energy policy for themselves.

Well aware of these kinds of problems, AICJ devoted its International Right to Know Day forum to a discussion of transparency measures related to nuclear power. The forum featured addresses by Peter A. Bradford, a former commissioner of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Attorney Hiroshi Miyake, an authority on Japan’s open government laws.

Other panel members included Yukiko Miki, chairperson of AICJ,  Tatsujiro Suzuki, deputy chair of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission and Baku Nishio, a co-director of the NGO Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center (www.cnic.jp/en)

Learning From the American Experience 

Bradford’s comments reflected his personal experience in nuclear crisis management.

He served as a commissioner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission during the partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, in 1979 and its aftermath, when US regulators considered measures to reduce the likelihood of similar accidents in the future. (See Winifred Bird’s profile of Mr. Bradford here: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/textfl20110821x2.html).

Bradford stressed the importance of transparency not only in educating the public and enabling individuals to participate effectively in administrative proceedings, but also to help to enhance public safety. He described the fundamental elements of a transparency program, from the government’s duty to maintain records to the right of the public to participate in administrative proceedings and file appeals against adverse decisions.

Of particular interest to the Japanese audience, Bradford described the operation of various American open government laws of special relevance to the nuclear power industry. They include the Atomic Energy Act, which requires public hearings concerning the licensing and license renewals of nuclear power plants; the Government in the Sunshine Act, which mandates that meetings of bodies like the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission be open to the public; and the Freedom of Information Act, which enables anyone to request the release of government records.

 Sadly, he also told the story of the decline in transparency related to nuclear power licensing in the US in recent years, as government priorities have shifted toward expediting nuclear licensing and addressing potential terrorist threats and other national security issues.

Japan Should Apply Its Transparency Laws to TEPCO

Attorney Hiroshi Miyake has been a leading advocate for open government in Japan for three decades. He is the author of several handbooks and numerous reference works on Japan’s information disclosure laws and is presently serving on a newly-established government panel that reviews requests for release of archival records of historic value.

Miyake shared personal reflections on his experience growing up in the shadow of nuclear power plants on the Japan Sea coast and repeated longstanding demands for the reform of Japan’s present national information disclosure law. Japan’s primary open government statute, the national “information disclosure law,” took effect in 2001. This law has numerous shortcomings but has never been amended. Mr. Miyake and other activists have demanded its reform for many years. (For further information, see http://www.freedominfo.org/regions/).

Of most topical interest, he presented specific proposals to mandate public disclosure of information by TEPCO. Due to the enormous claims for compensation resulting from the nuclear disaster, the company was forced to request government funding to continue operations. The government received a large equity stake in exchange, including a majority of voting rights, in August 2012. At the International Right to Know forum, Miyake stressed that both public safety grounds and government control over the company justify greater public access to company information.

He unveiled specific proposals to bring TEPCO within the coverage of Japan’s information disclosure law, which would enable individuals to effectively demand information directly from the company.

Overall, Japan’s Right to Know forum was a sobering experience. All participants were reminded of the limited progress achieved so far in promoting transparency measures in Japan, and of the terrible threat posed by the poorly regulated, non-transparent operations of powerful corporate entities.

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