The appalling track record of Japan's nuclear industry

The threat of a nuclear disaster in Japan has investors across the world panicking. And they may be right to do so – the country's nuclear industry has an appalling track record when it comes to covering up past incidents, says Merryn Somerset Webb.

There has been much talk since the beginning of the continually shocking crisis in Japan about the stoicism of the population, their discipline and their unselfishness. If this had to happen anywhere, say the columnists, Japan is the place best socially able to cope from it.

I have no idea if this is true or not. I suspect that it is a piece of fairly feeble stereotyping in that were a similar crisis to hit here we too would queue rather than fight at the supermarket. History shows the vast majority of people becoming better people in the face of crisis in the immediate term at least.

But there is one section of Japan that really is working all too well to type. The nuclear industry. In 1995, there was a major leak at Monju, a fast breeder reactor. The authorities (as represented by Donen which managed Japan's nuclear programme) said it was "minimal." It wasn't. Instead it was the largest accident of its type ever. In the world.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

Still as Alex Kerr points out in his excellent Dogs and Demons that was nothing that couldn't be dealt with by "hiding the evidence." Donen staff edited the film of the accident, taking out the 15 minutes that showed the actual damage and releasing onlyfive minutes of very innocuous material.

However this level of secrecy was nothing next to what happened in 1997. Then drums filled with nuclear waste exploded at the Tokai plant just north of Tokyo. This was or should have been a particular worry given that onlythree years earlier it had been discovered that 70kgs of plutonium (enough for 20 bombs) had been lost in the plant's pipes at some point.

Yet Donen simply pretended everything was fine. Managers pressurized workers to say the fire was under control when it was not and mis-stated the amount of material leaked by a factor of 20. But that's not all. Incredibly, says Kerr, "on the day of the explosion, 64 people including science and engineering students and foreign trainees toured the complex and no one ever informed them of the accident."

The list of the madness is almost endless. There was the later accident at the Tokai plant which degenerated into uncontrolled fission (something it took the authorities seven hours to figure out as they couldn't find a neutron measurer) and revealed that for years workers had been disposing of nuclear materials with buckets (rather than dissolution cylinders).

Then there were the 2,000 drums of radioactive waste stored in drums in pits filled with rainwater, and most surreal of all perhaps, a PR video produced by Donen to show that plutonium is not as dangerous as the activists say. Kerr quotes the storyline: "A small character named Pu gives his friend a glass of plutonium water and says it is safe to drink. His friend, duly impressed, drinks no less than six cups of the substance before declaring 'I feel refreshed!'"

Many secrets on (included 11 leaks of tritium in two and a half years) Donen was sort of shut down. I say sort of because it actually just carried on as before. Same staff and same ethos. Just with a different name Genden.

For more on all this I strongly suggest reading Kerr's book (it was written in 2001 but remains one of the best books I have ever read on Japan). But for now we should just note that it isn't particularly reassuring. That's particularly the case given that officials now say that current levels of radiation are "hazardous to human health." When even the Japanese government is telling people "Please do not go outside. Please stay indoors. Please close windows and make your homes airtight," it seems reasonable to worry.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.