Japan Nuclear Plants Are Vulnerable to Terror Attacks

Poor nuclear security is endemic at Japanese power stations. It’s a ludicrous risk, not only for the Japanese, but for the world.

TOKYO — Given the febrile global security atmosphere, recent revelations that those responsible for the Brussels attacks also scoped out Belgium’s nuclear facilities have, understandably, caused great consternation in many countries.

In Japan, however, the issue of nuclear security is treated with a strangely insouciant attitude by the authorities; unarmed guards keep watch outside of nuclear facilities, there is poor surveillance of sites and, incredibly, there are no mandated background checks on workers, allowing members of organized crime gangs access to radioactive material.

There is growing awareness that this is a problem not just for this island country, but for the world.

There is every reason to believe Japan is a target of the so-called Islamic State, which was behind the horrific slaughter in Paris in November and in Brussels in March.

Early last year, amid worldwide outrage about the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a speech in the Middle East vowing assistance to states “contending” with ISIS. That led to a de facto declaration of war against Japan by the jihadists and may have contributed to the death of a journalist they held captive.

Yet there is no serious effort to rethink the nuclear security issue. One adviser to the National Police Agency told The Daily Beast, on condition of anonymity, “The game has changed. We are not keeping up. We can’t trust the utility companies to deal with internal threats by themselves—they have neither the willpower nor the capability. We don’t have to worry so much about terrorists breaking down doors and blowing up nuclear power plants—we have to worry about them filling out job applications and just walking in.”

Japan has a large number of nuclear facilities staffed by guards who carry no weapons and who are otherwise poorly equipped to handle a terrorist attack. Past U.S. State Department cables note police officers who are asleep, express shock that Japanese guards are unarmed, and criticize the government for staging unrealistic training exercises while essentially outsourcing nuclear security to the utility companies.

Meanwhile there have been companies with ties to the yakuza crime organizations dispatching workers—in some cases, active yakuza members—to the plants. “Generally speaking, you don’t want sociopathic criminals around nuclear materials. Not a good idea,” deadpanned a Japan Nuclear Regulation Authority official, speaking on background, of course.

The guards do not carry weapons because Japan’s incredibly stringent gun laws make it almost impossible for civilians, including private security guards, to have them. This is good in that it keeps Japan’s annual gun-related deaths down to single digits. It’s bad in that unarmed men are probably unlikely to stop armed terrorists from storming the facilities. Some plants have armed police cars parked outside them at regular intervals, but few plants are fully guarded.

Oddly, this matter was given little if any attention at the recent Nuclear Security Summit in Washington.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was one of the leaders from 50 countries convened there as part of President Barack Obama’s call for a worldwide effort to prevent terrorists from acquiring nuclear materials, and his ruling coalition made sure that controversial and possibly unconstitutional new security laws went into effect a few days earlier.

But there is little reason to believe they’ll make Japan safer as long as the country continues to have a level of nuclear security that is, at best, substandard.

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The fifth anniversary in March of the triple nuclear meltdown at the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) facilities, in Fukushima Prefecture, highlighted concerns about the overall safety record of Japan’s plants.

Ed Shaw, a retired FBI special agent who was at the U.S. Embassy during the meltdown, recently pointed out Japan’s checkered history of nuclear accidents even before Fukushima, and noted that disaster could have been much worse: “The 2011 earthquake and tsunami came within an eyelash of creating a second nuclear meltdown much closer to Tokyo than Fukushima,” Shaw wrote on his blog.

The Japanese Parliament’s Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission concluded in July 2012 that the meltdown was a “man-made disaster… that could and should have been foreseen and prevented.” Three former executives of the company were indicted on charges of criminal negligence resulting in death and injury this year.

But what is most disturbing to Japan’s law enforcement community is that long-debated plans to mandate background checks on nuclear facility workers in conjunction with the police have been effectively scrapped since the accident—even though they may be needed now more than ever.

Japan’s Nuclear Reprocessing Center at Rokkasho, in Aomori Prefecture, which is supposed to restart operations this year, is designed to produce eight tons of plutonium annually—enough to fuel more than 2,600 warheads. The International Atomic Energy Agency is supposed to ensure that plutonium cannot be removed or leak from the Rokkasho plant without detection. But the system it has installed there is only 99 percent accurate, meaning that, theoretically, enough plutonium for over 20 nuclear bombs a year could still be spirited away without a trace.

Since the fall of 2013, the Japanese government has debated whether to change the law to legally require utility companies to do background checks on all those working at nuclear facilities—including storage and electricity production plants. The employees would have been checked for mental health issues, a criminal past, drug addiction, and past or present connections to organized crime, or extremist groups. The police would have been required to work in tandem with the utility companies to do the checks. But none of these measures has been instituted.

In December of 2013, the Abe administration passed into law the State Secrets Act, which gave the government sweeping powers to classify information and also to do background checks on government workers—including civilian contractors. Prime Minister Abe insisted that the law was necessary for Japan’s national security. Everything was in place for the government to finally mandate checks on nuclear workers to make sure they could be trusted in these facilities. And then very quietly, such plans were scrapped.

On Dec. 5, 2014, the Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Agency, which was tasked with creating terrorism countermeasures, made it known that it would not go forward with creating new legislation to legally mandate checking the background of nuclear workers. It presented a report to the Nuclear Regulatory Authority—the top of the nuclear regulatory chain of command in Japan—which suggested that utility companies should conduct the background checks, based on the self-assessments of the workers.

The reasons given for this security policy were that it was difficult to work out a means of exchanging information between government agencies, and concerns about privacy. Ironically, those concerns about privacy do not appear to extend to other civilian contractors since the State Secret Law went into effect.

Investigative journalist Satoshi Kamata, who has been reporting on nuclear issues in Japan for decades, said last year at a press conference, “The reason the government won’t require background checks has little to do with concern for privacy or individual rights. There simply aren’t enough workers to get the job done if they start weeding people out. That’s the reality of the nuclear industry in Japan—it’s a dirty, dangerous job that no one wants to do. Getting the plants running again trumps all other concerns.”

A senior bureaucrat and counter-terrorism expert in Japan’s National Police Agency, who spoke to The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity, citing penalties of up to 10 years in jail if considered to be violating the State Secrets Law, said that the measures in place “are a bad joke.”

He pointed out that criminal records in Japan, unlike in the United States, are not publicly available, and that power companies do not have the capacity to check individuals for mental illness, drugs, or yakuza connections without the full support of the Japanese government. “Police cannot share information they are not authorized to share,” he explained.

“Fukushima was labeled ‘a man-made disaster,’” he said. “If real security measures are not taken, the next nuclear disaster in Japan may also be ‘man-made,’ but of an entirely different nature and done with intent to do as much harm as possible.”

The counter-terror expert noted that not only was ISIS a threat, but Japan had received credible intelligence that North Korea had mapped out Japan’s nuclear facilities as vulnerable targets that could be turned into sitting nuclear bombs. “North Korea could easily infiltrate such facilities with Korean-Japanese workers and blow up the plants, turning them into dirty bombs, or perhaps steal nuclear materials to make such weapons.”

The advisor noted that the Japanese police have not done well dealing with terrorists, such as the Aum Shinrikyo cult, which released nerve gas on the Tokyo subways March 20, 1995, killing 12 people and affecting thousands. “We knew as early as December the previous year that the cult had made nerve gas at their facilities and had used it before. Yet we didn’t stop the attack from happening. Even since ISIS declared they would attack Japan, I have felt a growing horrible sense of déjà vu. Yet, restarting the reactors seems to trump all security concerns. And that’s where we are.”

Prime Minister Abe’s political mentor, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, has been scathing in his criticism of Japan’s nuclear security. In March 2015, at a speech in Fukushima, he said, “Everyone in the world says, ‘Japan is the weakest in facing nuclear terrorism.’ If something like what happened at the World Trade Center occurred in Japan it would be the end of nuclear power. There’s no explanation of why [Prime Minister Abe says] Japan’s nuclear safety is the best in the world. And he still wants to restart the reactors. I’m just dumbfounded.”

Former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who dealt forcefully with the meltdown in March 2011, expressed grave concern in his memoirs. “In this narrow country riddled with earthquakes, volcanoes, and subsequent tidal waves—nuclear power is a huge risk. Not to mention the possibility of human error. And the Fukushima accident showed the world how vulnerable nuclear power plants could be to terrorism. Terrorists don’t have to bomb them, they just need to get inside and cut the power to potentially unleash great destruction.”

A source at the National Police Agency noted, “There has been at least one cases of a right-wing group in a van knocking down fences and driving towards a nuclear reactor after 3/11 [the Fukushima disaster]. Those external threats are of concern, but the internal threat is the most worrisome. A fanatic who is not afraid to die can do a lot of damage if they can get insider a nuclear facility. A yakuza who needs the money badly enough might steal plutonium and sell it to terrorists—if the opportunity is there.”

The decision to not require background checks on nuclear workers was reported minimally by Japan’s mainstream press. The Japanese media have once again grown very reluctant to criticize what has been called “the nuclear village”—the compendium of industry, bureaucracy, politicians, and vested interests that ensure Japan’s nuclear industry stays in business.

This isn’t surprising. Since Abe’s rise to power in 2012, in the Reporters Without Borders annual World Press Freedom Index, Japan has sunk from 22 (2012) to 61 (2015), below Croatia and South Korea.

Reporters Without Borders indicates the reasons for decline as follows: “The ‘special intelligence protection bill’ that the National Diet in Japan adopted in late 2013 [reduced] government transparency on such key national issues as nuclear power and relations with the United States, [which are] now enshrined as taboos. Investigative journalism, public interest and the confidentiality of journalists’ sources are all being sacrificed by legislators bent on ensuring that their country’s image is spared embarrassing revelations.”

It appears that only one Japanese newspaper took the nuclear summit as a chance to raise awareness on Japan’s lack of nuclear security, the evening tabloid Nikkan Gendai. Its headlines on March 29 were punchy: “Japan has done absolutely nothing about nuclear terror counter measures. Experts say Japan’s nuclear facilities are the weakest in the world.”

The article quotes Hikaru Tomizawa, a former chief of staff of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Forces, who grimly summarizes the situation: “Japan is very behind others countries in taking countermeasures to deal with nuclear guerillas. The police are the first defenders in case of an attack and the army isn’t trained for keeping the peace. Terrorists would easily target Japanese nuclear facilities. If we don’t take measures quickly, we may be inviting a tragedy that far surpasses the Fukushima catastrophe.”

The National Police Agency replied to our enquires from last week with a fax noting that, “We have strengthened intelligence gathering, are working to gather terrorism related information quickly, and we have special squads [of police] now at all nuclear power plants with sub-machine guns, rifles, and armored cars, 24 hours a day. We are enthusiastically inspecting those entering the facilities, and we are strongly urging the nuclear industry to strengthen their security systems and measures.”

On the issue of mandating checks on workers, weeding out the yakuza and ensuring safety from internal threats, the NPA wrote, “We understand that at the Nuclear Regulation Authority, the debate on setting in a place a system to secure reliable information on individual workers is moving forward.”

In other words, the debate continues but the workers going in and out of the nuclear facilities, except in perhaps rare cases, are not being subject to background checks by the authorities.

In the U.S., at least, there is no access without authorization and a background check on employees that includes a check for criminal history and psychological testing as well.

The Daily Beast contacted the Cabinet Office seeking a response to critics who say that Japan’s nuclear terrorism countermeasures were “literally nonexistent” compared to the American forces who hold trainings under extreme scenarios. They cheerfully directed us to the Nuclear Regulation Authority, since the person in charge of the anti-terrorism topics in the Cabinet Office was not available.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority would not comment on what measures were being taken after the ISIS declaration of war on Japan in January 2015. However, they noted that on Oct. 21, 2015, the authority had held a meeting in which it decided to adopt new guidelines regarding individual checks on the workers.

But the guidelines are not mandates and there is no timeline as to when this new system will be enforced, “It is a delicate issue with many aspects to be considered,” we were told.

A delicate issue, indeed. But, as we learned most recently in Brussels, the terrorists are not delicate at all.