Tokyo business writer Yuri Kageyama scooped the Japanese media when she found out that Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s tsunami-risk assessment at its Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant amounted to a single-page document that hadn’t been updated in a decade. In announcing the award, AP senior managing editor Michael Oreskes writes: “One well-known Japanese blogger translated the story and offered this comment: ‘What in the world is the Japanese media doing while a U.S. news service is using the Japanese public information law to dig up buried records? Please stop being a pooch for the nuclear industry.’” PLUS: Other AP reporters are praised, including the one who reported that a 91-year-old woman who sells do-it-yourself suicide kits had been raided by the feds. Oreskes’s memo is after the jump.
From: Oreskes, Michael
Sent: Thursday, June 02, 2011 6:54 AM
To: Oreskes, Michael
Subject: Beat of the Week No. 403
Tokyo business writer Yuri Kageyama had little experience with Japan’s decade-old public records law, the equivalent of the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. Nor did the rest of the Tokyo bureau, or for the matter most foreign journalists working in Japan.
Nevertheless, the law would prove pivotal to the Beat of the Week-winning revelation that Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s tsunami-risk assessment at its Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant amounted to a single-page document that was never really examined by regulators and hadn’t been updated in a decade.
Kageyama was looking into the utility’s efforts to assess the tsunami risk when a senior official at Japan’s Nuclear Industrial and Safety Agency, the main government regulator, mentioned the document. But when Kageyama asked for a copy, the official refused. She went to TEPCO, but it also refused.
So Kageyama turned to Justin Pritchard, a Los Angeles-based member of the National Investigative Team. Since the Japan tsunami and nuclear crisis began in March, the two had forged a strong working relationship that had already yielded two AP IMPACTs. At Pritchard’s suggestion, Kageyama filed the request under the public record law. Even if the document didn’t say much, Pritchard said, there might be something in it that would tell a story.
To her surprise, Kageyama soon heard back from an official at NISA asking for more details about what she wanted and why. Then, after the required 30-day waiting period, Kageyama received the paper she had requested: a bare-bones document that was the sum total of tsunami preparedness assessment from the operator of the crippled nuclear plant.
The assessment ruled out the possibility of a tsunami large enough to knock the complex offline _ with scant details to justify that conclusion. TEPCO predicted the highest tsunami the plant needed to brace for was 5.7 meters. The actual wave that hit after the March 11 earthquake was estimated almost three times that high _ 14 or 15 meters. It cut off the vital cooling system, causing fuel in three of the reactors to almost completely melt.
Kageyama and Pritchard also learned that the assessment, dated Dec. 19, 2001, had never been revised, despite major advances in earthquake and tsunami science. And when Kageyama pressed NISA to explain its handling of the document, she got an alarming response: The agency responsible for ensuring the safety of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors had made no moves to verify the documents calculations or ask for supporting documents. It trusted TEPCO’s assessment. “This is all we saw,” said the official who heads NISA’s quake safety section. “We did not look into the validity of the content.”
The AP Exclusive scooped the Japanese media, which had not reported on the existence of the document, and ran on the front page of Tokyo’s English-language Japan Times. It was widely used online. One well-known Japanese blogger translated the story and offered this comment: “What in the world is the Japanese media doing while a U.S. news service is using the Japanese public information law to dig up buried records? Please stop being a pooch for the nuclear industry.”
For adroit use of public records law outside the United States to expose how unprepared the Japanese nuclear industry was for the tsunami, Kageyama and Pritchard win this week’s $500 prize.
Others whose work impressed the judges:
_ Meg Kinnard, Columbia, S.C., for using FOIA requests to show that a state safety inspector fired after a fatal crash at an amusement park had issued a citation for only one violation in four years. Documents obtained by Kinnard also showed that other inspectors who did a similar number of checks had issued multiple violations during the same time period.
_ Dina Cappiello and Matthew Daly, Washington, for delving through records of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to find that some nuclear power plants aren’t fully prepared for a tornado. In particular, the report singled out the Wolf Creek plant in Kansas, which safety experts confirmed was worrisome.
_ Bob Burns, Washington, for breaking the news that Army Gen. Dempsey would be President Barack Obama’s new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, instead of the expected Gen. James Cartwright. Burns got the information from two good sources, and except for an ABC News story three hours later, nobody could match it for 24 hours.
_ John Wawrow, Sports/Buffalo, for reporting that the Buffalo Bills were freezing 401(k) payments for all employees _ from coaches to team executives to janitors _ during the NFL lockout, and that other teams might follow suit.
_ Correspondent Sandy Cohen and video producer Cidoni Lennox, Entertainment, for finding out how much thinner Kirstie Alley had gotten over 10 weeks of “Dancing with the Stars” competition. Cohen and Lennox asked the onetime “Fat Actress” backstage after the semifinals how much weight she had lost, and Alley wouldn’t say. So, knowing that Alley would wear the same costume for the finale as for the first performance, Cohen and Lennox asked her how much the outfit had been taken in. The answer: A total of 38 inches had been cut from the fabric. The story was the most emailed on Yahoo for 24 hours, and network publicists complained they had to spend the day of the final show fielding calls from reporters trying to match the AP scoop.
_ Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman, Washington, for learning that the raid on Osama bin Laden was in some ways a personal payback by two of the senior CIA officials who planned it. They had been very close to two people who died in the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kenya 13 years ago. It was never revealed, until Goldman and Apuzzo learned it, that the two casualties, officially listed as State Department employees, were in fact working undercover for the CIA, and thus the first know American military casualties of the war with Al Qaeda. It was a secret Goldman was tipped to months before. He and Matt confirmed it and it made an ideal Memorial Day story. The story was a centerpiece on Yahoo and the lead on Huffington Post.
_ Gerald Imray, Johannesburg, for spotting the news buried in a weekly statement that it was not the “right time” to bid for an Olympics. Imray called the Olympic committee president to find out that sports officials had indeed ruled out South Africa’s long-expected bid for the 2020 Summer Games.
_ Mike Baker and Manuel Valdes, Seattle, for a pair of beats on a state budget compromise. Baker discovered that a deal had been struck to close a $5 billion budget gap. He got a tip that budget writers had planned a morning meeting to finalize the plan in a conference room away from the Capitol, and was the only reporter there. In similar fashion, Valdes staked out key lawmakers and reported, 45 minutes before an announcement, that they had agreed to lower the state’s debt limit.
_ Alicia Chang, science writer/Los Angeles, for reporting that NASA was giving up on its Spirit Mars rover, essentially ending its mission to Mars. Chang broke the story a week ahead of a planned news conference.
_ Dinesh Ramde, Milwaukee, for getting the first and so far only interview with convicted kidnapper Larry DeWayne Hall since police said he admitted killing a Wisconsin woman nearly 20 years ago. Ramde contacted Hall, incarcerated in a North Carolina federal prison, through a letter and interviewed him by telephone for 15 minutes. Hall apologized for the murder but refused to say where the body was because he didn’t want to face trial in Wisconsin. Then he indicated without giving any details that there were other cases: “I’ll just say I picked up 39 women altogether from 1980 to ’94. I spent some time with them. Sometimes bad things happened. Other times I just let ‘em go.”
_ Don Thompson, Sacramento, Calif., for getting an internal report that showed state corrections officers had misidentified inmates eligible for a new program to release low-level offenders on unsupervised parole. Through documents obtained under the California Public Records Act, Thompson also found that the state was changing a key provision of a popular law that required paroled sex offenders to wear GPS ankle bracelets.
_ Tami Abdollah, Salem, Ore., for reporting that a 91-year-old woman in California who sells do-it-yourself suicide kits had been raided by federal investigators. Abdollah’s beat reporting paid off when someone tipped her to the raid.
_ Angela Delli Santi, Trenton, N.J., for obtaining a confidential memo that laid out Republican plans to counter state court involvement in determining education funding. The plan pushes for the Legislature to have the power to determine what is required for a “thorough and efficient” public education.
Entries are now welcome for the current week. Find out more about the Beat of the Week contest, including eligibility requirements and previous winners, at the Contests and Awards page on http://inside.ap.org/12981.htm