Smoke rises from the no. 3 reactor of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power… (Reuters )
Tokyo Electric Power Co., which owns the earthquake- and tsunami-ravaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, is being criticized by people around the world, including the Japanese prime minister, for lacking candor — and not for the first time.
Critics have complained for years that Japanese nuclear plant operators — particularly Tepco, as it is known — have withheld information about safety violations and accidents. The critics have accused regulators of lax oversight in a giant industrial nation with no oil or gas resources, where atomic energy provides about one third of the power.
Tepco "is just like any other electric power company when it comes to accidents," said Yukito Matsui, the head of an activist group. "They aren't forthcoming. They won't tell you the truth."
Photos: Japan grapples with crisis
Tepco stands out for being "mired in secrecy," said Najmedin Meshkati, a USC engineering professor who has studied Japan's nuclear industry for more than a decade.
When another big Japanese utility, Kansai Electric Power Co., had a radioactive leak at its Mihama nuclear plant in 1991, it followed up by establishing the Institute of Nuclear Safety System, Meshkati said.
"That tells you about the culture of that organization — a breath of fresh air compared to Tepco," he said.
Among ordinary Japanese, Tepco's image appears to be mixed, at best. The company's record and close connection to government have hurt its reputation. And even people who feel more forgiving this time because of the extensive nature of the disaster still expressed frustration at the lack of reliable updates.
"They're trying very hard, but we're not sure about the information," said Mitsuhiro Sakamoto, 42, a book designer who lives in Chiba prefecture in greater Tokyo. "We need more detailed information from Tepco and the government so we know how to respond."
Japan's prime minister, Naoto Kan, lashed out at Tepco last week for slowness in releasing information about the stricken nuclear plant.
''The TV reported an explosion. But nothing was said to the premier's office for about an hour,'' Kan said during a meeting with Tepco executives, according to a Kyodo news service report. ''What the hell is going on?''
Tepco spokesman Yoshinori Mori said the company isn't hiding anything and is trying its best to disclose information to the public.
"There's high interest in what's been happening and we've been giving out information as soon as we receive them, and that's the truth," Mori said. "That means when we don't have information, we aren't able to hold press conferences."
Tepco, established in 1951 to supply metropolitan Tokyo with electricity, fired up the first of its 17 nuclear power reactors in 1971. The largest of 10 regional electric power companies in Japan and the fourth-largest in the world, it has more than 38,000 employees and 28.6 million customers.
Despite diversifying with energy investments around the world, Tepco was under huge financial stress even before the latest disaster sent its shares plunging. The utility lost $869 million in fiscal 2008 because of increased competition in the energy markets and the effects of shutting down its Kashiwazaki facility, the world's largest nuclear power plant, after a strong earthquake in 2007.
Though it returned to profitability, Tepco faces challenges "of unprecedented magnitude," according to an online message from its president. The message describes "an extremely difficult situation concerning the security of energy resources, mainly due to the recent surge in oil prices" and growing demand for power in Asia.
Tepco and the rest of Japan's nuclear industry are also plagued by recurring incidents of concealed problems at nuclear plants.
After a 1999 accident at Sumitomo Metal Mining Co.'s Tokaimura plant killed two people, the commission overseeing nuclear operators was removed from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and set up independently.
Some say that government monitoring is now adequate and that nuclear plant operators generally release the information the public needs. Problems in obtaining information about the latest disaster stem from the incredibly difficult situation at the site, rather than any inherent problem with Tepco, they say.
"Nuclear power plants are forced to disclose any problems they have," said Tetsuo Ito, director at Kinki University's Atomic Energy Research Institute in Japan. "Things are pretty transparent at Tepco."
But critics say they see little change in the industry's reputation for questionable safety standards and hiding accidents at the country's more than 50 nuclear power facilities.
In one case, Tepco's 17 nuclear reactors were temporarily shut down after it admitted in 2002 that it had falsified inspection findings and covered up serious flaws for 16 years. The company's president and four other executives resigned after the news became public.