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Friday, 12 September 2014

Fukushima plant chief rapped gov't for not sharing sense of crisis

The late chief of the disaster-hit Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant criticized politicians in his testimony, saying they completely failed to grasp the dire situation that workers faced at the height of the crisis, and that they only brought about further confusion, according to documents disclosed by the government Thursday.

In his testimony, Masao Yoshida, who led efforts to stabilize the Fukushima plant after it was struck by a huge earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, recalled when workers tried to carry out an emergency release of radioactive steam from the No. 1 reactor to avoid a rupture of its containers caused by rising pressure -- an operation called venting.

In the early hours of March 12, 2011, Yoshida and his workers, despite being hampered by high levels of radiation at the complex, were already trying to implement the operation manually after the plant suffered a blackout, when then industry minister Banri Kaieda -- unaware of what was going on -- issued an order at 6:50 a.m. to carry out the venting.

Yoshida said he felt like the office of then Prime Minister Naoto Kan was "the farthest away" from where he was. "Basically, they thought the vents (from where radioactive steam is released) would open as soon as the minister ordered. It doesn't work like that," he said.

He also recalled that senior government officials, and Kan himself, called him directly numerous times to ask "pretty entry-level questions" when he was "very busy" in dealing with the catastrophic situation at the plant.

The former plant chief's 400-page testimony also highlighted the poor corporate governance of Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the crippled plant, which brought about further mess.

The documents showed senior officials at TEPCO headquarters in Tokyo put more priority on the opinion of the prime minister's office, rather than trying to understand the difficult situation at the plant and support Yoshida.

"At that point, they were like, 'do it (venting) now, do it now'...there was a clear gap" over the perception of how serious the situation was between his team and the TEPCO headquarters, he told a government panel that was examining the Fukushima meltdowns.

The testimony was reflected in the panel's final report compiled in July 2012 along with testimonies from more than 770 others. Yoshida died of esophageal cancer the following July at age 58.

When Japanese major daily Asahi Shimbun first reported the contents of the testimony in May, the government refused to make it public, saying that Yoshida did not want it to be disclosed out of fear that all he had said would be taken as fact.

But the government changed its policy and disclosed it for the first time, out of concern that some of the contents reported by Asahi and several other media may have been wrong.

The government also released on the website of the Cabinet Secretariat testimonies of a total of 18 other politicians, government officials and researchers, including Kan, Kaieda, and Yukio Edano, then chief Cabinet secretary, after obtaining their consent.

In the testimony, Yoshida also firmly denied the possibility he deliberately delayed the implementation of the venting to allow Kan to fly to the Fukushima plant by helicopter.

Delaying the venting to prevent Kan from being affected by the venting was "absolutely nowhere" in his mind, Yoshida testified. "I thought we could even souse (radioactive steam over the prime minister's helicopter) to carry out the operation as soon as possible, because I was desperate to lower pressure within the reactor containment vessel."

"I was telling workers to somehow carry it out, but they couldn't (due to the extremely difficult situation). No matter whether the prime minister was flying, or whatever he was doing, people at the site wished to do it quickly, considering the safety of the reactor," Yoshida said.

On the government's interpretation that TEPCO was seeking to completely withdraw from the plant on March 15, when the No. 2 reactor was in a perilous situation due to a continued failure to cool down fuels, Yoshida strongly denied such a notion.

He explained that he had told the government that he might let some people evacuate from the plant, but he had been determined to keep a sufficient number of plant workers, including himself.
"Did we escape? No we didn't. I'd like to say it clearly."

The Asahi newspaper reported May 20 that some 650 plant workers, or 90 percent of the total, had left the complex despite Yoshida's order to stay put, citing his testimony to the government panel. The daily, however, retracted the report Thursday night after the documents were disclosed.

Asahi's report was cited by a number of overseas media and it has been one of the most controversial points in the process of examining the crisis.

Kan, who is now an antinuclear advocate, claimed in his testimony that he went to TEPCO headquarters to tell senior officials that plant workers could not leave the plant, contradicting Yoshida's testimony.

Edano -- who was the government's top spokesman at the time -- also told the panel that then TEPCO President Masataka Shimizu called him and mentioned a possible withdrawal from the Fukushima plant, according to the documents.
"I don't clearly remember (the) exact words...but I'm sure it was about a complete withdrawal," Edano said.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a press conference Thursday the government decided to disclose the documents as "only a fragment" of the record of Yoshida's hearing have been reported by several newspapers, and continuing to keep it from the public would serve nobody's interest.

Suga added the government's stance to promote the resumption of nuclear reactors deemed safe by the Nuclear Regulation Authority screening remains unchanged.

Source: Kyodo News International
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