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Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2012

Panel lays bare Fukushima recipe for disaster

Conflicting authority, mistrust, meddling add to poor preparation


Staff writer

The Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant crisis was caused by Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s lack of preparation for huge tsunami and exacerbated by conflicting levels of authority and downright "distrust and meddling" by high-ranking officials, an independent investigative panel reported Tuesday.

"There were cases of excessive meddling (by the government) toward people working at the site," and such actions did more harm than good, said Koichi Kitazawa, former chief of the Japan Science and Technology Agency.

The investigative group Kitazawa leads, the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, interviewed more than 300 politicians, bureaucrats and workers involved in the Fukushima crisis for its report.

Kitazawa painted a picture of distrust and doubt due to the limited exchange of information among the government, Tepco, bureaucrats and other parties. "Overall, they had also fallen into a systematic inattentiveness" toward making the crippled nuclear plant secure, he concluded.

The panel's report reveals that although the public was being reassured there was no reason to panic following the March 11 disaster, government leaders were contemplating worst-case scenarios, including evacuating the capital.

"We were concerned that damage from the nuclear accident could lead to a massive series of chain reactions," Yukio Edano, chief Cabinet secretary at the time, told the panel, according to the report.

The government by March 22 had ordered experts to compile a disaster synopsis that projected radioactive fallout to spike drastically in a radius of 250 km from the stricken plant and prompt evacuations in Tokyo.

The report also noted how then Prime Minister Naoto Kan may have aggravated the crisis by inappropriate micromanagement of the situation.

According to the report, spraying seawater on the overheated reactors was delayed because Kan questioned the effect of pouring anything other than fresh water. However, Masao Yoshida, then head of Fukushima No. 1, prevented further reactor damage by disregarding such concerns.

Kan has previously denied ordering Tepco to temporarily stop injecting seawater into the overheating reactors.

The panel's report also says government officials, including Edano, were cool to the idea of Kan visiting the plant on March 12 at a time when workers were frantically trying to contain the crisis and deal with various complex on-site issues. "It was not easy for me to stop him from going," then Deputy Chief Secretary Cabinet Tetsuro Fukuyama told the panel.

While some people the panel interviewed praised Kan's determination and leadership, others said his actions caused "confusion and friction" among those working to contain the catastrophe, the report says.

The panel meanwhile said trust between the government and the Nuclear Safety Commission disintegrated when three of the plant's reactors suffered hydrogen explosions, after NSC chief Haruki Madarame had offered assurances that such blasts were unlikely.

Then industry minister Banri Kaieda is quoted as saying the Cabinet "should doubt" what the NSC says. The mistrust prompted Kan to take matters into his own hands.

The report says he attempted to analyze the situation on hisown, at times using his cellphone to inquire about small details, including the size of backup batteries needed at the plant and ways to transport them to the site.

"Having the prime minister ask about such small details made me question (the chain of command) . . . I felt a chill," an unnamed source who was with Kan at the time told the panel.

But Kan, already wary of information provided by Tepco, bureaucrats and government bodies, named personal acquaintances as assistants and began making decisions in a closed group.

The report meanwhile cast an image of panic and extreme information disarray even at the prime minister's office.

"Vertical sectionalism" within the government also exacerbated the crisis, the report said, citing the confusion over whether the science ministry, the NSC or the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency should initiate the public release of data from the System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information (SPEEDI), causing a delay in getting the word out.

Cabinet members acknowledged in the report that they were underprepared.

"I didn't know that (SPEEDI) even existed," Kaieda is quoted as saying.

A lack of communication between the science ministry and the Self-Defense Forces also delayed the measurement of radioactive fallout via helicopters that only began on March 25, the panel concluded.

As for collaboration with the U.S., the report says Washington was ready and eager to dispatch experts but Tokyo was slow in accepting help. Edano was not sold on having U.S. specialists stationed at the prime minister's office, as proposed by U.S. Ambassador John Roos during a phone conversation on March 14.

Comments by workers at the Fukushima plant are also listed in the panel's report, including one who said he feared that "this nuclear power plant is over and done with."

The worker is quoted in the report as saying he saw signs that pipes were severely damaged and that fuel rods were about to be exposed.

"It was extreme luck that Japan managed to avoid experiencing the most disastrous day," Kitazawa said.

The panel said Tepco executives involved in immediate efforts to defuse the crisis refused to be interviewed for the report for reasons that were not specified.


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