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Nuclear Crisis Set Off Fears Over Tokyo, Report Says

In the darkest moments of last year’s nuclear accident, Japanese leaders did not know the actual extent of damage at the plant and secretly considered the possibility of evacuating Tokyo, even as they tried to play down the risks in public, an independent investigation into the accident disclosed on Monday.

An official in a full radiation protection suit scans an evacuated elderly woman with a geiger counter to check radiation levels in Koriyama city in Fukushima prefecture.
AFP | Getty Images
An official in a full radiation protection suit scans an evacuated elderly woman with a geiger counter to check radiation levels in Koriyama city in Fukushima prefecture.

The investigation by the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, a new private policy organization, offered one of the most vivid accounts yet of how Japan teetered on the edge of an even larger nuclear crisis than the one that engulfed the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. A team of 30 university professors, lawyers and journalists spent more than six months on the inquiry into Japan’s response to the triple meltdown at the plant, which followed a massive earthquake and tsunami last March 11 that shut down the plant’s cooling systems.

The team conducted interviews with more than 300 people including top nuclear regulators and government officials, as well as the prime minister during the crisis, Naoto Kan. They were granted extraordinary access, in part because of a strong public demand for greater accountability and because the organization’s founder, Yoichi Funabashi, a former editor in chief of the daily Asahi Shimbun, is one of Japan’s most respected public intellectuals.

An advanced copy of the report describes how Japan’s response was hindered at times by a debilitating breakdown in trust between the major actors: Mr. Kan; the Tokyo headquarters of the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power, known as Tepco; and the manager at the stricken plant. The conflicts produced confused flows of sometimes contradictory information in the early days of the crisis, the report said.

It described frantic phone calls by the manager, Masao Yoshida, to top officials in the Kan government arguing that he could get the plant under control if he could keep his staff in place, while at the same time ignoring orders from Tepco’s headquarters not to use sea water to cool the overheating reactors. By contrast, Mr. Funabashi said in an interview, Tepco’s president, Masataka Shimizu, was making competing calls to the prime minister’s office saying the company should evacuate all of its staff, a step that could have been catastrophic.

The 400-page report, due to be released later this week, also described a darkening mood at the prime minister’s residence as a series of hydrogen explosions rocked the plant on March 14 and 15. It said Mr. Kan and other officials began discussing a worst-case outcome of an evacuation of workers at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. This would allow the plant to spiral out of control, releasing even larger amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere that would in turn force the evacuation of other nearby nuclear plants, causing further meltdowns.

The report quoted the chief cabinet secretary at the time, Yukio Edano, as having warned that this “demonic chain reaction” of plant meltdowns could have resulted in the evacuation of Tokyo, 150 miles to the south.

“We would lose Fukushima Daini, then we would lose Tokai,” Mr. Edano was quoted as saying, naming two other nuclear plants. “If that happened, it was only logical to conclude that we would also lose Tokyo itself.”

The report also described the panic within the Kan administration at the prospect of large radiation releases from the more than 10,000 spent fuel rods that were stored in relatively unprotected pools near the damaged reactors. The report said it was not until five days after the earthquake that a Japanese military helicopter was finally able to confirm that the pool deemed at highest risk, near the No. 4 reactor, was still safely filled with water.

“We barely avoided the worst case scenario, though the public didn’t know it at the time,” Mr. Funabashi, the foundation founder, said.

Mr. Funabashi blamed the Kan administration’s fear of creating a panic for its decision to understate the true dangers of the accident. He said the Japanese government hid its most alarming assessments not just from its own public but also from allies like the United States. Mr. Funabashi said the investigation revealed “how precarious the U.S.-Japan relationship was” in the early days of the crisis, until the two nations began daily informational meetings at the prime minister’s residence on March 22.

The report seemed to confirm the suspicions of nuclear experts in the United States — inside and outside the government — that the Japanese government was not being forthcoming about the full dangers posed by the stricken Fukushima plant. But it also showed that the United States government occasionally overreacted and inflated the risks, like when American officials mistakenly warned that the spent fuel rods in the pool near unit No. 4 were exposed to the air and vulnerable to melting down and releasing massive amounts of radiation.

Still, Mr. Funabashi said it was the Japanese government’s failure to warn its people of the dangers and the widespread distrust it bred in the government that spurred him to assemble the independent investigation. Such outside investigations have been rare in Japan, where the public in the past has tended to accept official versions of events.

He said his group’s findings conflicted with those of the government’s own investigation into the accident, which were released in an interim report in December. A big difference involved one of the most crucial moments of the nuclear crisis, when the prime minister, Mr. Kan, marched into Tepco’s headquarters early on the morning of March 15 upon hearing that the company wanted to withdraw its employees from the wrecked nuclear plant.

The government’s investigation sided with Tepco by saying that Mr. Kan, a former social activist who often clashed with Japan’s establishment, had simply misunderstood the company, which wanted to withdraw only a portion of its staff. Mr. Funabashi said his foundation’s investigators had interviewed most of the people involved — except executives at Tepco, which refused to cooperate — and found that the company had in fact said it wanted a total pull out.

He credited Mr. Kan with making the right decision in forcing Tepco not to abandon the plant.

“Prime Minister Kan had his minuses and he had his lapses,” Mr. Funabashi said, “but his decision to storm into Tepco and demand that it not give up saved Japan.”

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