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Report: Britain tried to downplay Japan nuclear woes

British government officials tried to get nuclear energy companies play down Japan's nuclear problems, the Guardian of London newspaper reported Wednesday.
Image: Smoke is seen coming from the area of the No. 3 reactor of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in northeastern Japan in this handout photo
Smoke is seen coming from the area of the No. 3 reactor of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant March 21 in Tomioka, Fukushima Prefecture in northeastern Japan.Ho / Reuters
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British government officials tried to get nuclear energy companies to downplay Japan's nuclear problems just two days after an earthquake and tsunami devastated a Fukushima nuclear plant, the Guardian of London newspaper reported Wednesday.

Officials approached companies to coordinate a public-relations strategy before the extent of Japan's radiation leak was known, the Guardian said.

Internal emails reviewed by the Guardian show how the business and energy departments worked closely behind the scenes with companies like EDF Energy, Areva and Westinghouse to try to ensure the accident did not derail plans for a new generation of nuclear stations in the United Kingdom.

"This has the potential to set the nuclear industry back globally," wrote one official at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), whose name has been redacted. "We need to ensure the anti-nuclear chaps and chapesses do not gain ground on this. We need to occupy the territory and hold it. We really need to show the safety of nuclear."

Officials stressed that they wanted to prevent Japan's problems from undermining Britons' public support for nuclear power.

Conservative Member of Parliament Zac Goldsmith, a member of the Commons environmental audit committee, condemned such strong coordination between the government and nuclear companies that the emails apparently reveal.

"The government has no business doing PR for the industry and it would be appalling if its departments have played down the impact of Fukushima," he told the Guardian.

Louise Hutchins, a Greenpeace spokeswoman, told the Guardian the emails appeared to reveal "scandalous collusion." "This highlights the government's blind obsession with nuclear power and shows neither they, nor the industry, can be trusted when it comes to nuclear."

The Fukushima accident, triggered by the Japan earthquake and tsunami on March 11, has forced 80,000 people from their homes. Opinion polls indicated public support for nuclear power in Britain fell after the accident. Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Thailand and Malaysia canceled planned nuclear power stations after the accident, the Guardian said.

The business department argued in March 13 email to nuclear firms and their trade group, the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA), that the accident was not as bad as "dramatic" TV pictures made it look. Consequences of the accident were still unfolding and two major explosions at reactors on the site were yet to happen, the Guardian said.

"Radiation released has been controlled – the reactor has been protected," said the business official, whose name was redacted. "It is all part of the safety systems to control and manage a situation like this."

The official suggested that companies' comments could be incorporated into briefs to ministers and government statements. "We need to all be working from the same material to get the message through to the media and the public.

"Anti-nuclear people across Europe have wasted no time blurring this all into Chernobyl and the works," the official emailed Areva. "We need to quash any stories trying to compare this to Chernobyl."

Japanese officials initially rated the Fukushima accident as level four, "local consequences, on the international nuclear event scale. But it was raised to level seven on April 11, officially making it a major accident" and putting it on a par with Chernobyl in 1986.

The Guardian said the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC), in 80 emails sent after the Fukushima accident, show:

• Westinghouse called remarks by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg on the cost of new nuclear power stations "unhelpful and a little premature."

• The company admitted its new reactor, AP1000, "was not designed for earthquakes [of] the magnitude of the earthquake in Japan" and would need to be modified for seismic areas such as Japan and California.

• The business department called for "a good industry response showing the safety of nuclear — otherwise it could have adverse consequences on the market".

On April 7, the office for nuclear development invited companies to attend a meeting at the NIA headquarters in London "to discuss a joint communications and engagement strategy aimed at ensuring we maintain confidence among the British public on the safety of nuclear power stations and nuclear new-build policy in light of recent events at the Fukushima nuclear power plant."

A government spokesman told the Guardian, "Given the unprecedented events unfolding in Japan, it was appropriate to share information with key stakeholders, particularly those involved in operating nuclear sites. The government was very clear from the outset that it was important not to rush to judgment and that a response should be based on hard evidence. This is why we called on the chief nuclear inspector, Dr. Mike Weightman, to provide a robust and evidence-based report."

Tom Burke, a former government environmental adviser and visiting professor at Imperial College London, told the Guardian that the British government was repeating mistakes made in Japan.

"They are too close to industry, concealing problems, rather than revealing and dealing with them," he said.