Burying Japan’s Nuclear Secrets

The journalists fell silent

2020.04.23 18:21 Makoto Watanabe

7 min read

“The journalists fell silent, and the country crumbled.”

Such is the warning of South Korean documentary “Criminal Conspiracy,” which Tansa screened on World Press Freedom Day 2019, in conjunction with a panel discussion with a journalist from the Korean Broadcasting System.

The film shows how KBS management collaborated with Lee Myung-bak, South Korea’s president from 2008 to 2013, to censor news stories, crush freedom of the press, and fire or demote a string of reporters.

Japan’s journalists have experienced something similar. In 2014, amid mounting pressure, the national daily Asahi Shimbun suddenly retracted an article about the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The story was a report on the testimony of the late Masao Yoshida, manager of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant during the 2011 accident. The government, which had interviewed Yoshida, kept his testimony secret. Without the work of journalists, it would never have come to light.

“It’s the end of eastern Japan.” The transcripts revealed Yoshida’s thoughts during the disaster. In those critical days, he feared the country itself was on the verge of collapse.

However, the Asahi subsequently retracted its article on Yoshida’s testimony. The paper renounced its own story. Almost none of the Asahi’s reporters protested the decision. It seemed Japan’s journalists would remain silent even after their country had come face to face with an existential threat.

The two reporters who wrote the article were disciplined and subsequently left the Asahi. One of them, Hideaki Kimura, helped launch Tansa.

I belonged to the Asahi’s special investigative section that was responsible for the Yoshida coverage. Although I was not part of the team reporting on the Yoshida testimony, Kimura’s desk was next to mine.

This series will examine what I saw and heard during those days, as well as the events surrounding the article’s retraction. I hope it provides an opportunity to think about who journalism is meant to serve.

Record radioactivity on March 15

After the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear accident, many in the surrounding area were forced to flee their homes to escape radioactive contamination. Currently, roughly 40,000 still live in temporary housing.

I interviewed some of these people for the Asahi’s series “The Prometheus Trap.”

One man I interviewed could no longer live in Okuma town, his birthplace. Depressed, he consoled himself by reading the poetry of Chuya Nakahara. On the day it was announced that Tokyo would host the 2020 Olympics, he called me to say it felt like “Fukushima was being left behind.”

Although it is surprisingly little known, the highest radioactivity reading during the Fukushima disaster — 11,930 microsieverts per hour — was recorded at the plant’s main gate four days after the earthquake, at 9 a.m. on March 15, 2011.

After obtaining a copy of the confidential Yoshida testimony, the Asahi reported what had truly taken place at Fukushima No. 1 in the hours before and after this record radioactivity reading.

Here’s what happened that day.

A chance to stem the flow

At 6:42 a.m., Yoshida ordered the plant’s roughly 720 workers to remain onsite at areas with low levels of radioactivity and wait for instruction.

The previous day, plant staff had become increasingly concerned that the Unit 2 nuclear fuel containment vessel might soon be breached, which would result in workers being exposed to large amounts of radiation. The Tokyo Electric Power Company, which managed the plant, planned to evacuate workers to the Fukushima No. 2 nuclear power plant in a neighboring town 10 kilometers away.

At dawn on March 15, workers at the site heard an explosion. The previous night’s evacuation plan was set in motion. However, Yoshida received word from TEPCO’s head office that perhaps Unit 2’s containment vessel was still intact and that only a pressure gauge had broken. It might still be safe.

If so, it was no longer necessary to evacuate. The 720 workers could remain onsite to try to bring the damaged nuclear plant under control.

Yoshida ordered his staff to halt the evacuation and remain at Fukushima No. 1. He felt they still had a chance to stem the flow of radiation.

Highest radioactivity while 90% of staff were offsite

But the opportunity Yoshida saw wouldn’t come to be.

Contrary to his order, 650 people — about 90% of all workers — went to the Fukushima No. 2 plant.

What’s more, over 80% of them had not returned by the next day, March 16. These facts were recorded in a TEPCO videoconference. However, they are almost never spoken of. Even now, many are under the impression that the evacuated staff quickly returned to Fukushima No. 1.

At 9 a.m. on March 15, with 650 workers gone, a radioactivity reading of 11,930 microsieverts per hour was recorded near the plant’s main gate. This was the highest radioactivity reading of the entire accident. In the following hours, the plant would continue to emit high levels of radiation.

The radioactive contamination released during this period had a staggering impact on Fukushima. Even eight years later, 40,000 evacuees still have not returned home. Perhaps if those 650 workers had stayed, the story might be different.

But, even now, no one has looked into the matter.

The counterfactual TEPCO press conference

Yoshida’s order that staff wait at areas of low radioactivity was relayed to the TEPCO head office via videoconference early in the morning of March 15. The conference call also connected the Fukushima No. 2 plant, the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant in Niigata, and the Fukushima No. 1 offsite emergency response center.

Two hours later, at 8:35 a.m., TEPCO held a press conference in Tokyo. By that time, 90% of Fukushima No. 1’s staff had gone to the No. 2 plant.

However, TEPCO said workers had temporarily moved to safe places within the No. 1 plant.

TEPCO’s report at the press conference — that workers had acted in accordance with Yoshida’s order — did not reflect the reality of the situation. It is unknown whether the company was lying or if it did not realize that the majority of its staff had in fact evacuated to Fukushima No. 2.

“Who will deal with a severe nuclear accident?”

The Asahi Shimbun revealed what had really happened that day in its May 20, 2014 morning edition.

“Workers evacuated, violating plant manager orders,” declared the front-page headline. The article noted that “For over three years, TEPCO hid the fact that workers had evacuated from the plant against orders.”

The second page ran an analysis written by Hideaki Kimura under the headline “Debate on resuming operation [of nuclear plants] should face reality.”

“Yoshida’s testimony shows us that during a severe accident it is quite possible that power company employees will leave the site,” Hideaki Kimura wrote. “Who will deal with the accident then? Fire departments, or the Self-Defense Force? Should Japan create a special military unit, or perhaps rely on the U.S.?”

When I read the article, I was convinced Hideaki Kimura was right. Not even the manager can control the situation at a nuclear power plant during a severe accident. It made me think how dangerous it is to rely on nuclear power at the current level of technology.

Asahi president: “The paper misled readers” and “those involved will be strictly punished”

However, rival media organizations took issue with the Asahi’s coverage. They insisted the claim that Fukushima No. 1 workers had violated Yoshida’s order was tantamount to saying that they had fled in cowardice. In their eyes, the Asahi’s phrasing “evacuated in violation of order” was unfair and an affront to the staff’s honor, as the plant was in chaos at the time and workers may not have received Yoshida’s directive.

So why were these words used in the article? I spoke to the three members of the coverage team, including Hideaki Kimura. Their comments are summarized as follows.

── Order: As plant manager, it was Yoshida’s responsibility to determine and execute disaster countermeasures. The severity of the situation was comparable to a warzone, so much so that Yoshida envisioned the end of eastern Japan. His words were not mere instructions but an order.

── Violation: Even if the staff did not know about the order, taking different action constitutes a violation. If you miss a traffic sign and say “I didn’t know,” it’s still a traffic violation.

── Evacuated: The article did not use the expression “flee” because that was not workers’ intention in going to the No. 2 plant. It used “evacuate” because the two plants are 10 kilometers apart, making it impossible for staff to immediately return if anything happened, and because 90% of workers went to the No. 2 plant. A day later, 80% still had not returned.

Yet the coverage team’s reasoning counted for nothing. Three and a half months after the article was published, on September 11, 2014, Asahi President Tadakazu Kimura, Executive Editor Nobuyuki Sugiura, and Director in charge of public relations Hisashi Yoshizono unexpectedly held a press conference. President Tadakazu Kimura announced that the paper was retracting the article.

“The Asahi Shimbun obtained the Yoshida testimony while the government was keeping it confidential,” Tadakazu Kimura said. “Reporters misjudged the testimony and used the expression ‘evacuated in violation of orders.’ As a result, the article erroneously gave readers the impression that many TEPCO employees fled. We retract that expression, as well as apologize to readers and TEPCO.”

Then President Tadakazu Kimura put down the microphone. He stood up with Sugiura and Yoshizono, and the three men bowed in apology for six seconds. After the bow, Tadakazu Kimura said the paper was dismissing Sugiura and strictly punishing “those involved.”

Asahi employees were not allowed to attend the press conference, except for those setting up. I watched via a livestream, wondering what the people of Fukushima could be thinking.

Not long after, I had a chance to find out.

… To be continued.

(Originally published in Japanese on May 1, 2019)

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