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Concerns simmer over access to nuclear info as enforcement of secrets law nears (Mainichi)

In this Nov. 25, 2013 file photo, Mayor Tamotsu Baba of the Fukushima Prefecture town of Namie speaks during public hearings on the special state secrets protection bill in the city of Fukushima. (Mainichi)

In this Nov. 25, 2013 file photo, Mayor Tamotsu Baba of the Fukushima Prefecture town of Namie speaks during public hearings on the special state secrets protection bill in the city of Fukushima. (Mainichi)

On March 25, 2011, two weeks after the Great East Japan Earthquake and the outbreak of the Fukushima nuclear crisis, a senior government official showed Minamisoma Mayor Katsunobu Sakurai a map.

“I’d never seen anything like it,” Sakurai says, adding that he still remembers how shocked and angry he became as the information hit him. It was a map of radiation levels around the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant. And though he was responsible for the safety of a city just up the coast from the power station, it was the first time he’d been told that the neighboring town of Namie and village of Iitate — both at least partially outside the 30-kilometer evacuation zone around the plant — were badly contaminated. The southern section of Minamisoma was inside the zone, and many residents there had evacuated — some of them to areas this bureaucrat was now telling him were highly radioactive.

“Vital information like this needs to be given to the people who live here,” Sakurai snapped at the official.

The March 2011 earthquake and consequent nuclear disaster were, for Japan, part of the same emergency. When the triple earthquake-tsunami-meltdown disaster struck, the Japanese government deployed over 100,000 Self-Defense Forces personnel, while the United States also came to the rescue with a fleet of about 20 U.S. Navy vessels (including an aircraft carrier), some 160 aircraft and more than 20,000 troops in the massive Operation Tomodachi. This vast mobilization got help to most of the disaster survivors.

The Japanese government shared data on radiation distribution from its System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information (SPEEDI) with the U.S. military on March 14, three days after the triple-meltdown at the Fukushima plant. The data, however, was kept from the Japanese people until March 23, inviting a storm of criticism that the government had needlessly exposed people to radiation.

On Dec. 10, four days before the House of Representatives election, the special state secrets protection law will go into effect. The law prescribes a prison term of up to 10 years for those who spill designated secrets in four categories: defense, diplomacy, counterespionage, and counterterrorism.

In fact, none of Japan’s political parties — including the largest ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) — had ever publicly promised to implement a secrets law in the past. The idea initially popped up during Shinzo Abe’s first term as prime minister in 2007. That year, Japan and the U.S. signed an intelligence-sharing pact, and Japan effectively promised its powerful ally that it would prepare a law to protect secret information.

A secrets bill remained under consideration during the subsequent Fukuda and Aso administrations, and was interrupted by the 2009 election that brought the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) to power. The Cabinet of the last DPJ Prime Minister Yasuhiko Noda began preparing a bill, but it never reached the Diet. In 2012 came the second Abe Cabinet, which set to work on a bill that was submitted to the Diet in October 2013.

During the intense debate on the special state secrets bill, discussion turned to what effect it would have on nuclear power. Masako Mori, the minister in charge of shepherding the legislation into law, and other government figures stressed that information on nuclear disasters would not be classified as state secrets by any means. Nuclear reactors, however, could be a terrorist target, and as such, there’s no guarantee that information about nuclear plants vital to the safety of the Japanese people won’t be classified.

The fact is the government quickly ended up lagging behind events in the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and both Fukushima’s prefectural and municipal leaders and many of their citizens are deeply distrustful of the special states secrets law. The Fukushima Prefectural Assembly voted unanimously in October last year to submit a letter to the national government demanding the bill be handled carefully. At a public hearing on the bill held by the House of Representatives in the city of Fukushima in November last year, all five locals who spoke said they were worried about it.

One of those five was Tamotsu Baba, mayor of Namie, who said, “The main principle here is not the protection of secrets, but the release of information” to the people. At a public address a short time earlier, Baba had stated that SPEEDI and other information “was hidden from us. They (the central government) told us that they didn’t know how accurate the information was, and that they kept it under wraps to prevent a panic. Well, human lives are far more important than all that. This is a basic issue that comes even before any discussion about whether such information would be classified secret” under the new law.

Just a day after the public hearing in Fukushima, the special state secrets protection bill was railroaded through the special lower house committee considering it, and then whisked through the House of Councillors after only a week of debate.

The Act on Access to Information Held by Administrative Organs, which governs the release of government documents to the public, came into force in 2001. In 2011, the then DPJ-led administration submitted revisions to this act to the Diet that would reduce the discretion that government organs had over what to release and what to keep locked up; make access to documents free of charge; and effectively shorten the waiting period for information access requests to three weeks. The bill, however, died before it could become law.

On the possibility that information on nuclear accidents and “nuclear emergencies” could be kept secret, Sakurai says, “I’m worried about that. We’d be in trouble if that ever happened.”

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