As the third anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear accident approaches and the fuel rod removal begins, journalists are mixed about Tepco’s handling of the press

Tepco vs. the foreign press

by Justin McCurry

Alitany of technical mishaps aside, poor management of its relations with the foreign media was for a long time a recurring theme in Tokyo Electric Power’s handling of the crisis at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The sense that the facility’s hapless operator was covering up as much as it was revealing about the true nature of the March 2011 triple meltdown and its aftermath led Reporters Without Borders to accuse Japan of obstructing independent coverage of the accident in its 2013 global media report.

Members of the media wearing protective clothing study the spent-fuel pool inside Reactor 4 at Fukushima Daiichi

Having been closely involved in about half a dozen media visits to Fukushima Daiichi and, like many other Tokyo based correspondents, a regular visitor to the exclusion zone around the plant over the past two years and 10 months, I found RWB’s criticism excessive.

It jarred with my experience of reporting on Fukushima, and that of many colleagues, and failed to explain the large body of fine reporting that has emerged from inside and outside the power plant, much of it from the same independent journalists the Japanese authorities were supposed to have thwarted so successfully.

That said, press tours of Fukushima Daiichi by members of the Foreign Press in Japan [FPIJ] a network of accredited journalists working for overseas based media organisations prompted mixed reactions from among those covering Japan’s worstever nuclear accident.

It is clear from discussions with colleagues who have attended at least one of the tours that while Tepco deserves praise for responding to FPIJ pressure to organize tours for a significant number of journalists, it still has work to do in improving access and explaining, warts and all, the challenges it faces as it embarks on a long and costly decommissioning operation.

“I think Tepco’s instinct is still to stage manage as closely as it can,” says David McNeill, who writes for the Economist, the Independent and the Irish Times. “I always feel like I’m being rushed from site to site, that Tepco officials are uncomfortable under scrutiny and have no idea, or willingness, how to explain technical issues. They still don’t realize that it’s better to be open than try to keep the company line that everything is under control which they’ve laughably tried to maintain since March 2011.”

Despite his reservations, McNeill acknowledges that the site visits present opportunities to write first hand about key issues affecting the cleanup. “The fact that we’re on site at all, seeing what’s going on at Daiichi with our own eyes, is priceless,” he said. “Tepco can’t control everything.”

A good example is the potentially risky removal of more than 1,300 spent fuel assemblies from the storage pool in Reactor No. 4. On a visit organized early last month, 20 FPIJ writers, photographers and broadcasters were given unprecedented access to the fuel pool, and the opportunity to quiz one of the engineers responsible for making it safe over the coming 12 months.

Joel Legendre Koizumi, a correspondent for the French broadcaster RTL who has made multiple visits to the plant, said his coverage had benefited from greater access to information during the recent trip, and from better overall communication between journalists and officials.

“As for the risks involved in the fuel removal, we all know what they are because of our own background research,” Legendre Koizumi said, giving a cautious welcome to Tepco’s own take on the dangers.

Reporting on Fukushima has forced journalists with little or no scientific background to quickly acquaint themselves with the language of nuclear energy and radiation. Still, a common complaint is Tepco’s apparent reluctance to explain the technological difficulties the myriad tasks at Fukushima Daiichi entail. More often than not, procedures such as the removal of spent fuel from Reactor 4 or the construction of barriers to prevent leaks of contaminated water have been deemed worthy of only cursory explanation.

“I found the overall level of technical explanation had, if anything, declined,” McNeill says of the November tour. Legen dreKoizumi echoed that sentiment. “More background briefing on the technology being used would have been much appreciated. Too often time is limited. Daiichi is one thing, but is just one part of the puzzle. Tepco still has a lot to explain.”

Mari Yamaguchi, a reporter for the Associated Press, says it is our job as journalists to challenge Tepco’s reluctance to shed more light on the technical challenges presented by the cleanup. “I don’t think we can expect Tepco to go out of their way to show us the risks, though it would be nice if they did,” Yamaguchi says. “But to be able to get any sense of the risks and problems, we have to know enough about the technical details and ask the right questions. It’s part of our job to do that.”

While arrangements have been made for pooled photographs and video footage, the ban on print reporters taking photographs, and restrictions on access to certain areas of the plant, angered some reporters.

“Generally speaking, I did not find the trips particularly useful,” says Pio D’Emilia, a correspondent for the Italian broadcaster Sky TG24. “Lots of time was wasted on pro forma security issues and briefings.

“Both from a pen journalist and TV reporter’s point of view, such visits should have been more focused on direct reporting. TV reporters should have been allowed more time to do their standps, and in general, journalists should be treated better than sheep. Citing ‘safety and security’ reasons to make actual reporting almost impossible is not exactly the best for us, or for Tepco.”

A notable absence from all of the trips has been any contact with ordinary workers at the site, with the exception of a handful of handpicked managers from contractors. “There is the deliberate attempt to prevent any contact between journalists and workers,” says D’Emilia. “This is a stupid approach, because all of us have already found a way to contact, meet, interview and even befriend many workers.”

As the third anniversary of the disaster approaches, there is a good chance that a large group of foreign reporters will again find themselves at the heart of the nuclear crisis. While Tepco appears to have accepted that granting access to FPIJ members is now non negotiable, this is no time for complacency on our part.

“We should stop thinking of these tours as privileges and more as a right,” says McNeill. “The onus is on Tepco to show accountability for all the money they’re using, and the chaos they’ve caused.”

Yamaguchi notes that Tepco has adopted a more progressive attitude towards female reporters visiting the plant; the prime minister’s office has tried, unsuccessfully, to ban them, citing a lack of changing facilities for women at the site.

But she called on the utility to make a similar commitment to establishing parity between Japanese and foreign reporters. “I get the impression that Tepco tends to make FPIJ tours simpler, and with access to fewer or different places than those for the Japanese media,” she says.

“I’m not sure if this is because that’s what they think we are interested in, or if it’s due to the additional time needed for interpretation. Also, I’m not happy that our tours always come after those for Japanese journalists, so sometimes what we see is no longer really news.”

Tepco take note.

Justin McCurry is Japan and Korea correspondent for the Guardian and the Observer. He contributes to the Christian Science Monitor and the Lancet medical journal, and reports on Japan and Korea for France 24 TV.