Fukushima: Is it “Nuclear Secrecy” or Just Capture?

by Alex Wellerstein, published March 12th, 2012

Two very different stories have been setting off my "nuclear secrecy" Google Alert switchboard for the past two weeks.

The first is Iran and their alleged secretiveness as an indicator of their alleged bad intentions. I'm still wrapping my head around that one.1

The second is the Fukushima accident, which has hit its one-year anniversary. It's not something I've talked about on here before, and this post is something of an explanation of why.

Fukushima first-year dose estimate by the NNSA, via the US Department of Energy

There is little doubt that the Japanese government failed to disclose the severity of the accident as it was happening, or the potential outcomes that were within a realistic possibility. Tepco, the power utility that runs Fukushima, similarly has developed a strong reputation for non-disclosure or selective-disclosure.

All of which brings back some grim memories of the Soviet Union's lack of disclosure surrounding the early days of Chernobyl. By comparison with these two nuclear accidents, Three Mile Island, even with the cacophony of contradictory information that was released, seems like a comparatively open event in retrospect.

I don't lump any of these incidents, though, under the heading of "nuclear secrecy." Why not?

For me, what makes nuclear secrecy an entity worth discussing is not that it happens to be secrecy that applies to nuclear technology. Rather, it's the secrecy that surrounds the specific security implications associated with military and dual-use nuclear technologies: in the end, it's about the bomb, not just nuclear qua nuclear. The ability to concentrate "absolute" military power into a small package has changed the international order -- and various national orders -- since 1945. The locating of the source of that newfound political power in knowledge -- instead of, say, materials or industrial know-how, for example -- was the first step towards settling on information control (secrecy) as the form of its control. Why this was so, and whether it was a good idea, or even worked, is the subject of my overall research and the (someday) forthcoming book. But it's this Hobbesian use of the bomb as the ultimate argument for secrecy that makes nuclear secrecy an interesting thing, above and beyond the bureaucratic secrecy that clusters around all complicated organizations, or the somewhat more banal forms of generic military secrecy or diplomatic secrecy.

Nowhere is this "special" nature of the bomb more explicit than in the United States, where the restricted data legal concept (after which this blog is named) actually carves out a completely parallel classification system for information related to nuclear weapons, above and beyond "normal" defense secrets.

The bomb might seem like an overly specific case, focusing primarily on weapons production methods, designs, and stockpiles. But a tremendous amount of other information "devolves" into these three categories. Example: Nuclear reactors originally fell into all three categories, because they were used to produce plutonium, they gave you information about nuclear properties that were for awhile considered classified, and because knowledge of American reactor operations could help you estimate the size of the US plutonium inventory, and thus the stockpile. There are far more amusing examples, of course: the amount of toilet paper used by a secret site, for example, can help you get estimates as to the personnel levels there, which can then be traced back to the amount of material or work being produced, and so on.

It's a rabbit hole of almost infinite depth, and that's part of what makes nuclear secrecy interesting, along with its deep connection to questions of science and technology. (Can you classify a fact of nature? Do facts of nature lead directly to acts of technology? And so on.)

But the nuclear accidents under discussion don't connect to the bomb at all. They aren't secret because of their connection with anything related to deep security issues, generally speaking.2 They're just run-of-the-mill cover-ups. They might as well be chemical facilities, for all it matters for the secrecy involved. I tend to see Fukushima as an example of regulatory capture, not nuclear secrecy. The secrecy isn't because it's a specifically nuclear plant, but because it's an industry that has insufficient oversight, too-close relations between regulated-and-regulators, and fairly tight margins of profitability.

But here's where I take a step back from that conclusion: those last three factors seem to be to be fairly endemic of the specifically nuclear industries worldwide. Why? Here's where the nuclear nature becomes rather important: nuclear power, as it currently exists, has extremely high capital costs, which lead to those tight margins of profitability that I mentioned. In the past it has led to cutting corners, looking-the-other-way, and CYA-communication -- the same sorts of activities that seem at the base of the Fukushima debacle.

Nuclear power is also recognized as something that needs "special" regulation. Its place of prominence on the high-risk/low-probability spectrum makes it not fall under "business as usual" when it comes to its regulatory bodies, and that -- perhaps inevitably -- leads to a major tightness between the regulated and its regulators, and the accompanying oversight issues that go with it.

(This isn't helped by the fact that nuclear plants are terribly complicated. If you haven't toured a functioning nuclear power plant, I heavily recommend it, if only to get a first-hand feel for what it means to run one. On paper they are just elaborate tea kettles; in person you realize how many miles and miles of piping and valves and switches have to be functioning correctly for it to operate safely. They are probably not more complicated than a hydroelectric plant of the same power output, for all I know, but they still occupy that unique place in the high-risk/low-probability spectrum. It's no surprise that there are a lot of ways for them to go wrong, and that anticipating how they might go wrong under given circumstances is a tough operation.)

Arguably, we still treat nuclear a little too special for its own good. Chemical facilities can blow up, too, with consequences far more measurably disastrous than any nuclear plant accident yet. Much of our "nuclear dread" comes from a much deeper psychological/historical source than the technical realities behind reactors. (Which gives me an opportunity to point out that Spencer Weart's new edition of Nuclear Fear, retitled The Rise of Nuclear Fear, has just become available on Amazon.) Perhaps if we regulated nuclear power in a less "special" fashion, we wouldn't have quite as much opportunity for capture as we have right now. I don't know.

Either way, though, the secrecy we're talking about here, it's not the same secrecy, in my mind, that has followed the bomb around since 1939. It's secrecy, and there's a nuclear element involved, but it's not, in my mind, nuclear secrecy.

  1. How secret is "secretive"? Does the Qom facility count as secretive because it wasn't immediately disclosed? What's the IAEA requirement for when you disclose a facility — at what point in its construction/planning? Are the Iranians any more secretive about these things than anyone else? Does having another state assassinating your scientists justify additional security/secrecy? I'm still mulling. []
  2. There have been some concerns with reactor secrecy because of their nature as potential terrorist targets, but that's not what has been going on here, I don't believe. []

5 Responses to “Fukushima: Is it “Nuclear Secrecy” or Just Capture?”

  1. Tyson G says:

    Nuclear plants are a lot more complicated than hydro plants. I guarantee it.

  2. Thanks Alex for weighing in on Fukushima. Can I disagree with you somewhat? The culture of secrecy is deeply embedded in the nuclear world, often because the bomb-makers of the 1940s and 1950s also found careers in peaceful applications, and the AEC (and AEA, CEA in the UK and France) operated both worlds. Nuclear power was not as distinct as some would like to paint it, and much of the establishments’s attitudes toward the public was about information control and PR, even in the absence of explicit secrecy classification. Nuclear power of the past decades has inherited these mentalities even as it distances itself more and more from the Bomb.

    A plug: read my “motifs” article on nuclear history, it just came out. You can find it on my blog. I’d love to have your thoughts, even if you disagree!

    • Hi Jake: I just am not sure I see the “culture” argument extending much beyond the 1950s, a priori, and certainly don’t see any such connection with regards to Fukushima (it seems to me to be a stretch to say that American bomb culture transferred to American reactor culture which transferred to Japanese reactor culture over the course of those 60 years — a regulatory capture argument seems to satisfy Occam’s Razor quite handily), but I’ll read the article!

  3. kme says:

    I agree with Tyson – it’s worth visiting a large hydro plant just to see how simple they are – not really much more complicated than their on-paper form.

    Regarding your first footnote, the IAEA requirement for disclosure depends on the specific safeguards agreement applying to the state in question – in the case of Iran, this is a point of contention as it hinges on whether the Additional Protocol is in force (Iran says that it never formally agreed to the AP, only to voluntarily implement it for a while).

  4. Cassini says:

    Alex, One thing that plays heavily into the situation with Fukushima is the cultural influence of Japanese society at large. I’ve had a good bit of experience dealing with the culture, in particular the engineering culture and the response is not unusual at all. The first priority of any organization in japan is to appear cohesive and avoid losing face for the group. Any failure is seen as a failure for the entire group, which for an accident of this size could easily be seen as the entire country.

    I would find it very interesting to compare the nuclear secrecy practices and international positions of different cultures. Again, my experience in international engineering has taught me that many of the stereotypical views are close to the truth. The french especially would be interesting, given the cultural tendency to assume they are the most technologically advanced given the guidance they were given by US scientists in the 1970s.