03/15/2011 - 17:02

What government transparency could mean for Japan's nuclear disaster

Jennifer Sims

Jennifer Sims

A member of the Bulletin's Science and Security Board, Sims is director of intelligence...

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The crisis Japan is managing at four of its nuclear reactors constitutes both a human tragedy and a national security nightmare. The security challenge flows from both the physical threat of a radioactive plume spreading over the countryside and the widespread human suffering caused by the massive earthquake and tsunami. 

The lack of energy supplies and rolling blackouts in Japan are disrupting industrial production across the country. Such physical challenges are triggering other psychological reactions that, though understandable, exacerbate the physical effects:  the sell off of stocks in flagship companies such as Toyota, Honda, and Japan Electric, the resulting rise in the yen, and speculation about the future of other industries that might be affected. These consequences extend far beyond Japan itself.

Experts question whether the future of nuclear power can ever be bright again, and what this might mean for plans to curb global warming. Suddenly, nuclear power does not seem as "clean" as it once did.

As the Japanese government seeks to manage the security implications of its catastrophic national disaster, officials should recall that secrecy can harm more than help. Some reports of workers exposed to 40 rem an hour at the Daiichi complex are frightening, given that 400 rem can be fatal. If such reports are true, why did the news take so long to come out? Has the reactor vessel broken at plant number 4 at the Daiichi plant or not? Was there a fire involving spent fuel rods? Rapid decision-making in a national security crisis usually means accepting the risks involved in sharing sensitive information. In this case, however, the greatest risks lie in secrecy, not openness. The psychological effects of this unfolding disaster are strong and the need for trust in government is high. Releasing information about the status of the nuclear plants, the extent of the damage and the risks of further radioactive emissions can serve to dampen negative commentary and worst-case speculation. Even bad news can be accepted and calming if it builds trust that the government is not hiding anything. Denied such transparency, media outlets and the public may come to distrust official statements.

Although outsiders need to be patient, recognizing the enormous stress all Japanese are experiencing as they cope with this crisis, Japanese officials need to appreciate that social networking can magnify noise; poor information policies will exacerbate their national security crisis, not alleviate it.