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The Globe and Mail

Japanese angered over lack of nuclear plant information

A masked woman reads an extra newspaper with the banner reading, "Radiation Detected in Large Amount," at Osaka, western Japan, on Tuesday March 15, 2011.

Kyodo News/AP/Kyodo News/AP

With mass evacuation around its troubled nuclear power plant and fresh fears of radiation poisoning, the Japanese government moved to solve yet another crisis: communication.

Fed up with Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s (Tepco) ability to manage the nuclear crisis, the Japanese government announced Tuesday it would create a joint crisis headquarters to deal with the unfolding situation at Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

The move was an implicit indictment of Tepco's communication strategy of the nuclear threat, which has stoked anger among the Japanese people who argue it amounts to obfuscation.

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Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan's patience with the power company has also apparently worn thin.

Japan's Kyodo news agency reported one of its journalists overheard Mr. Kan slam Tepco executives at its headquarters after learning about a third explosion at the Fukushima Daiichi plant an hour after it happened.

"What the hell is going on?" he reportedly screamed, frustration that echoed across the country as the power company issued countervailing assessments of risk through an erratic release of information.

Analysts say that overall, the Japanese government has done a commendable job mounting a rescue operation in the wake of a devastating earthquake and tsunami. However, its success stands in stark contrast to Tepco's handling of the nuclear crisis at Fukushima Daiichi.

The power company's efforts to convey the level of risk of radiation exposure to the Japanese people and organize rolling blackouts have been confusing at best.

Earlier this week, planned power cuts failed to take place. Other people found themselves unexpectedly without power because of confusion over the blackout schedule.

"At press conferences, [Tepco]presents a minor functionary without a title, with his shirt unbuttoned and his tie askew reading off a photocopy about where power is going to be cut off and where it isn't," said Michael Cucek, a political analyst who lives in Tokyo.

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"People are furious at Tepco. Now, because of the company's incompetence, people no longer trust what they are saying about radiation. The sense of panic has increased rapidly in the last 24 hours," he said.

Sheila Smith, a senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Japan's orderly culture makes the problems feel more significant: "The Japanese are used to things working better, so the problems are magnified because it is a very precise system," she said.

Mr. Kan has made few public appearances in recent days, allowing Yukio Edano, Japan's youthful and energetic chief cabinet secretary, to be the public face of the government.

Analysts said the Prime Minister, who was deeply unpopular before the earthquake, has projected an effective image as a hard-working, behind-the-scenes leader that will likely bolster his approval ratings.

Mr. Edano has been praised for his efforts to communicate with the Japanese people, using Twitter to great effect and holding regular press conferences.

However, as the nuclear crisis drags on with no clear solution, public trust is being tested on all fronts.

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The mayor of a town close to the failing nuclear complex complained that the government has failed to keep his office updated.

"We've been asking the prefecture and the government to give us information quickly but we've been having to force information out of them," Katsunobu Kakurai, mayor of Minamisoma, told Reuters.

A Mainichi newspaper printed a rare editorial that was deeply critical of the lack of co-ordination between the government, the power company and nuclear safety officials.

"Information is the essence of crisis management. … Based on real-time information, it is vital for the government to join as one with experts in nuclear power and radiation, crisis managers and experts in public relations and risk communication to work to make information available," it read.

However, some experts, such as Ms. Smith, argue the government and Tepco are locked in a no-win situation.

"If you are sitting on the ground in this situation, you have to be mad at somebody," she said.

"People want a definitive answer, 'Everything's going to be okay,' and that's not what the Japanese are getting. They are being told the truth: 'We are in uncharted territory and we are doing the best we can.' "

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