An unnamed official from the International Atomic Energy Agency is quoted in a 2008 cable from the American embassy in Tokyo as saying that a strong earthquake would pose a "serious problem" for Japan's nuclear power stations. The official added that the country's nuclear safety guidelines were dangerously out of date, as they had only been "revised three times in the last 35 years."
Following that warning, Japan's government pledged to raise security at all of its nuclear facilities, reports The Daily Telegraph, which published the cable. But questions are now being asked about whether authorities really took the nuclear watchdog's worries seriously.
A new emergency response center was built at the Fukushima power plant. However, that facility was only designed to withstand 7.0-magnitude tremors. Friday's seismic activity measured 9.0, and the plant has been rocked by three explosions in the past five days. It is now believed that the containment system around one of Fukushima's reactors has cracked, allowing radioactive steam to escape into the atmosphere.
Other documents published by WikiLeaks also shine a light on Japan's seemingly relaxed approach to nuclear safety. A 2006 cable from the Tokyo embassy detailed how a district court ordered a nuclear plant shut down in western Japan "due to safety concerns over its ability to withstand powerful earthquakes."
The judge argued that local people might suffer radiation poisoning if there was a quake-caused accident at the Shika plant. That power station was only built to survive a 6.5-magnitude earthquake, in line with outdated regulations written two decades earlier.
However, the country's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency didn't share those concerns, the cable reports. It argued that "the reactor is safe and that all safety analyses were appropriately conducted." And in 2009, the high court overturned the closure order and declared that the reactor's safety measures satisfied "the government's quake resistance guidelines."
Another cable sent from Tokyo to Washington in October 2008 alleged that the government had hidden past nuclear accidents. In 2008, Taro Kono -- a senior member of Japan's lower house of parliament -- told U.S. diplomats that the ministry of economy, trade and industry was "covering up nuclear accidents, and obscuring the true costs and problems associated with the nuclear industry."
Kono also raised the issue of earthquakes and nuclear safety in the meeting. Citing "Japan's extensive seismic activity" and "abundant groundwater," he doubted government assurances that "a safe place to store nuclear waste" could be found in the "land of volcanoes."
The overall picture that emerges from the cables is of a government afraid of interfering with the powerful nuclear industry, which supplies about one-third of Japan's electricity. In his discussion with U.S. diplomats, Kono suggested that Japan's culture of deference to authority and corporate power prevented officials from changing the country's soft-touch regulation. He argued that industry ministers were "trapped" as they "inherited policies from people more senior to them, which they could then not challenge."
Japanese officials who went on to work for the IAEA apparently shared this fear of confrontation. In 2009, the U.S. embassy in Vienna, Austria, labeled the IAEA's outgoing safety director "a disappointment," in part because of his failure to boost safety at home.
Taniguchi served as the executive director of Japan's Nuclear Power Engineering Corp. -- which is charged with addressing nuclear plant security in the aftermath of earthquakes -- before becoming the deputy director general for the IAEA's Department of Nuclear Safety and Security in 2001. Taniguchi left his job with the nuclear watchdog in September 2009, when another Japanese official, Yukiya Amano, was appointed director general of the IAEA.
Before leaving office, Taniguchi told a meeting of nuclear officials in 2008 that the international community needed to push for more nuclear power safeguards, according to a separate Vienna cable. "We should avoid another Chernobyl or nuclear 9/11," he said. Unfortunately, such a disaster is now unfolding in Fukushima.