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Japan's Cloud of Secrecy

Nuclear secrecy can be justified in the name of security -- but it can also threaten people's health and safety, as well as the environment.

A nuke plant continues to spew radiation while hundreds of thousands of Japanese are left guessing how much risk they face or how to protect themselves. The effects from radiation -- sickness, cancer and other health problems -- could take years to surface. Some facts could take even longer.

Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), owner of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, has a long record of covering up safety violations and accidents. At one point in 2002 all of TEPCO's boiling-water nuclear plants were shut down.

TEPCO's press releases and briefings about the current emergency have been uninformative at best. The Japanese government's friendly relationship with the nuclear industry it regulates, as well as the legal constraints on the Japanese press, are not helping matters.

A New York Times team reported an excellent story on the withholding of information.

"Foreign nuclear experts, the Japanese press and an increasingly angry and rattled Japanese public are frustrated by government and power company officials' failure to communicate clearly and promptly about the nuclear crisis," the Times reporters wrote. "Evasive news conferences followed uninformative briefings as the crisis intensified over the past five days."

As Japan issued an order to evacuate a 30 km radius around the plant, the United States undiplomatically warned all of its citizens within an 80 km radius of the plant to evacuate. China called on Japan to report unfolding risks quickly and accurately.

The risk to the country's citizens of panic from accurate information is small compared to the global hazards of speculation and hyperbole that rush into an information vacuum.