Burying Japan’s Nuclear Secrets

Follow-up article would have examined the lessons of Fukushima

2020.06.16 17:56 Makoto Watanabe

7 min read

Before getting into the content of The Asahi Shimbun’s follow-up, here’s a refresher for those who may not remember or have read all of this series’ preceding articles. If you don’t need it, go ahead and skip to the next section.

During the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear accident, the highest radioactivity reading was recorded at 9 a.m. on March 15, 2011. Just hours earlier, 90% of the plant’s workers had evacuated to the Fukushima No. 2 plant in a neighboring town.

At 6:42 a.m. that morning, Fukushima No.1 plant manager Masao Yoshida had ordered his staff to remain onsite. But things did not go according to plan.

TEPCO, the power company in charge of the plant, said incorrectly that its workers were still onsite at a press conference that day.

The truth came out three years later. Following the nuclear accident, the Japanese government compiled the transcripts of its interviews with Yoshida. The Asahi Shimbun obtained a copy of the transcripts and revealed their content in an article headlined “Workers evacuated, violating plant manager orders” on May 20, 2014.

However, the Asahi announced it was retracting the article at a press conference on Sept. 11, 2014, with President Tadakazu Kimura bowing in apology. The retraction followed mounting pressure against the Asahi for pulling a column by Akira Ikegami that criticized the paper for not apologizing for inaccuracies in its past coverage of Korean comfort women. In order to calm the storm of criticism, the paper sacrificed its article on Fukushima.

Retracting an article is equivalent to saying it’s a fabrication. That was the case with the Asahi’s 1950 fabricated interview with prominent communist Ritsu Ito, who at the time was a fugitive and in hiding. But the Yoshida article was based on real transcripts, and it never deviated from the facts.

Many voiced their disapproval of the Asahi’s decision. I spoke over the phone with a reader from Fukushima who had been affected by the disaster.

“Quit apologizing! The article showed that the situation becomes uncontrollable during a nuclear accident,” he said. “Yoshida told workers to wait on standby at the Fukushima No. 1 plant, but they went to No. 2. Doesn’t that mean they violated his order? Yoshida told them to stay at No. 1 because the fate of eastern Japan was on the line.”

Additionally, 194 lawyers from across Japan sent the Asahi a letter protesting the retraction. “This decision represents a step by The Asahi Shimbun toward abandoning its mission to impartially report the facts without yielding to any kind of pressure,” they wrote.

Prior to the article’s retraction, the Asahi had been prepared to face down any criticism it received and even produced a follow-up piece to do so. The follow-up was set for publication four times, but, in the end, it never saw the light of day.

This is what it said.

Six days before the retraction

I have a copy of the unpublished follow-up. At over 6,000 characters (about 3,000 words), the piece was written by the Asahi’s special investigative section, of which the team responsible for the original Yoshida article was part.

Of course, the special investigative section did not have sole control over the text; Executive Editor Nobuyuki Sugiura and General Editor Tsutomu Watanabe supervised the writing process. The final plan was to publish the follow-up on the first three pages of the Asahi’s Sept. 5 edition — six days before the original article was retracted.

The follow-up was intended to respond to criticism the original had received.

Since its publication on May 20, 2014, the article — headlined “Workers evacuated, violating plant manager orders” — had been criticized by weekly magazines and other media outlets for making it seem as if the Fukushima No. 1 workers had fled in cowardice. They said it impinged the TEPCO workers’ honor and that the Asahi was making the Japanese look bad. Asahi bashing raged online.

But the Yoshida article had intended to show that it is impossible to control the situation at a nuclear plant if a severe accident occurs. Nothing was written about workers “fleeing.”

Before the original article was published, the reporters confirmed that workers had not been aware of Yoshida’s order. They knew it wouldn’t be accurate to write that workers fled.

The follow-up included a column from investigative section head Sei’ichi Ichikawa clearly explaining the original article’s message.

When I read Ichikawa’s draft, I knew it was our responsibility to readers to make it public. Here’s the text in full.

Full text of Ichikawa’s column

“A nuclear accident endangers the lives and safety of people living across a wide area. We must use the shortcomings and lessons of Fukushima to prevent such a disaster from happening again. But even now, over three years after the accident, we have found no personnel-based countermeasures to bring runaway reactors back under control.

“In his testimony, Yoshida said he even envisioned ‘the end of eastern Japan’ as the situation at the plant deteriorated. Although we were spared that fate, we must not forget that almost 130,000 people are still forced to live as evacuees due to serious radioactive contamination.

“We obtained Yoshida’s testimony, which the government had not made public. In it, we found new information that the government and TEPCO had not made clear, which we reported on in corroboration with other evidence. One piece of new information was about workers evacuating to Fukushima No. 2.

“The article aimed to take a hard look at the very real possibility that, in the event of a serious nuclear accident, a large number of the plant’s workers may leave the site, even though their presence is essential to respond to the crisis. The article raised the question of whether a fundamental reworking of the organizations and systems [to respond to a severe accident] is necessary.

“Ultimately, people are the ones to stop a runaway reactor. Should the responders be a limited number of workers under the power company’s plant manager? Or should our public institutions create a special task force? The government and TEPCO still have not answered the questions raised by the accident.

“The government has strengthened regulations regarding nuclear power plant construction. But no matter how much we improve the facilities, accidents still can happen. Who then will respond? Where will we find their replacements? What support will the government provide? The majority of these issues, including corresponding legislation, remain untouched.

“The government recently changed its stance and announced that it was disclosing Yoshida’s testimony. Other documents created by the government’s accident investigation commission will also be disclosed if those who testified give their consent. The Asahi Shimbun will take these opportunities to provide the Japanese public with reporting that illuminates the truth.”

By special investigative section head Sei’ichi Ichikawa

Giving the Fukushima No. 1 workers a voice

Alongside Ichikawa’s column, the unpublished follow-up also included the following information.

1. In addition to Yoshida’s testimony to the government’s accident investigation commission, notes taken by TEPCO employees during the videoconference confirm his order.

2. At a press conference, TEPCO stated that workers remained at Fukushima No. 1 despite the fact that 90% of them, including some managers required to stay onsite during an emergency, had evacuated to Fukushima No. 2.

3. During the four hours after 90% of workers had left Fukushima No. 1, a large amount of white smoke and steam rose from Unit 2, and a fire broke out at Unit 4.

4. Fukushima No. 1 workers were not aware of Yoshida’s standby order. Some were located outside the rooms connected via the videoconference system.

Readers deserved to know all of the above, the fourth point in particular. Although the original article had not intended to give readers the impression that workers had fled, the Asahi had a duty to clear up any misunderstanding by giving those workers a voice.

But the follow-up article, set to be published on Sept. 5, was shelved. The Asahi chose not to be transparent and accountable to its readers.

During this period, the situation within the Asahi underwent rapid changes, culminating in the article’s retraction on Sept. 11. I’ll explain what happened next time.

… To be continued.

(Originally published in Japanese on Nov. 11, 2019)

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