State secrets law raises concern about safety of nuclear power plants

December 17, 2013


There is growing concern that the government may be tempted to keep sensitive information on the safety of nuclear power plants under wraps once the state secrets protection law goes into force.

Experts cite the government’s secretiveness that hindered access to U.S. contingency plans on how to respond to a total power failure resulting from a terrorist strike against a nuclear power plant even before disaster struck the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant nearly three years ago.

On several occasions up to 2008, the U.S. government shared details with Japan on its contingency plans for responding to a catastrophic situation involving a nuclear power plant. The information was passed to what was then the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) in Japan.

But the section chief in charge of such steps at NISA acknowledged that he was kept out of the loop. The official said he was not privy to the information. The official was interviewed by The Asahi Shimbun in autumn 2011, months after the nuclear accident unfolded in March that year.

NISA limited access to the U.S. contingency plans known as B.5.b to only a handful of its senior officials. This was because the U.S. government provided the information on the understanding it would remain classified.

The Japan Federation of Bar Associations has expressed strong concern that the new law on state secrets may embolden the government’s propensity to hold back crucial information on nuclear safety.

One reason for this is that the legislation leaves unclear what matters will be designated as state secrets and who will have authorization to determine what should be withheld from the public.

“A tendency to hold back on vital information left nuclear power plants vulnerable to earthquakes and tsunami, resulting in the nuclear disaster,” said Yutaka Saito, a member of the federation’s task force on problems related to information. “We cannot fully engage in discussion about safety if information is withheld.”

B.5.b was developed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States as a response to a possible strike on a nuclear facility.

B.5.b stipulates that operators of U.S. nuclear power plants must prepare for a total power failure by equipping themselves with transportable batteries; by developing procedures for manually operating vent valves and reactor-core cooling systems; by organizing instruction manuals setting out the procedures; and by training operators to implement the measures.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), an independent body of the U.S. government, established the policy to deal with a total power failure triggered by the same circumstances that caused the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center to collapse after commercial airliners commandeered by terrorists deliberately crashed into the buildings.

Nuclear experts believe that the B.5.b procedures could have provided crucial guidance during the first few days of the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

But NISA did not share the information with the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, which oversaw anti-terrorist steps, nor operators of nuclear power plants, such as Tokyo Electric Power Co., which owns the crippled Fukushima No. 1 facility; nor did NISA oblige utilities to put contingency measures in place that reflected the points raised by B.5.b, leaving nuclear power plants without steps to cope with the loss of all power sources.

Due in part to the availability of batteries as backup power sources, NISA concluded that to prepare for a total power failure or a terrorist attack was not a top priority for Japanese nuclear power plants.

But when disaster struck the Fukushima No. 1 plant, staff there were unable to respond to the crisis swiftly and adequately.

Technicians spent too long confirming proper procedures and obtaining appropriate equipment before operating vent valves with automotive batteries or manually trying to decrease pressure inside the nuclear reactors.

The result was meltdowns at the No. 1 through No. 3 reactors and hydrogen explosions at the No. 1, No. 3 and No. 4 reactors within days of the crisis triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, that left the Fukushima plant in total blackout.

The Diet panel looking into the nuclear accident, the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, said in a report in June the following year that the Fukushima disaster could have been averted if NISA, while handling the sensitive information, had notified utilities about steps described in B.5.b and obliged them to put the steps in place.

TEPCO mentioned B.5.b in its report the same month, saying, “It could have helped delaying the development of the accident.”

It also said the content of B.5.b was not deemed to be information that private operators of nuclear power plants in Japan are not allowed to have access to.

With regard to B.5.b, TEPCO said in a summary of the accident in March this year that it likely would have noticed the existence of B.5.b if it had closely monitored efforts overseas to bolster safety precautions around nuclear facilities.

By June 2011, three months after the Fukushima disaster, the U.S. government released key points of B.5.b.

The official who oversees emergency measures at the Nuclear Regulation Authority, which succeeded NISA in 2012, now has access to relevant B.5.b literature.

Gregory Jaczko, a former NRC chairman, told The Asahi Shimbun in an interview in September that B.5.b was initially clandestine to prevent would-be terrorists from learning about the vulnerability of nuclear power plants. He served as NRC chairman at the time of the Fukushima crisis.

B.5.b was declassified after the Fukushima disaster because U.S. authorities decided that making it public would contribute to the improved safety of nuclear power plants.

The U.S. nuclear industry also wanted to reassure the public that it had measures in place to cope with a contingency such as those raised in B.5.b, he added.

(This article was written by Toshihiro Okuyama and Hiroo Sunaoshi.)

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Portable batteries shown in the forefront of this photo were taken to the central control room of the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant to power gauges and instruments. (Provided by Tokyo Electric Power Co.)

Portable batteries shown in the forefront of this photo were taken to the central control room of the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant to power gauges and instruments. (Provided by Tokyo Electric Power Co.)

  • Portable batteries shown in the forefront of this photo were taken to the central control room of the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant to power gauges and instruments. (Provided by Tokyo Electric Power Co.)
  • Documents on how to deal with a total power failure, known as B.5.b measures, are released on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s website after the 2011 accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. (Toshihiro Okuyama)

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