Was Tokyo Electric Power Co. (now Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, Inc.) putting top priority on ensuring the safety of residents around its Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant when the accident occurred? The findings of a recent probe have raised doubts even about this.
A third-party panel of lawyers set up by TEPCO released a report on why it took as long as two months after the crisis for the utility to acknowledge that the reactors had melted down.
On March 14, 2011, three days after the accident occurred following the massive earthquake and tsunami, then TEPCO President Masataka Shimizu instructed a then executive vice president during a press conference “not to use” the word “meltdown,” according to the report. The message was delivered via a public relations staffer, citing instructions from the Prime Minister’s Office, the report said.
Subsequently, TEPCO used the description “core damage” in connection with the accident. “The nuclear power plant and the head office shared a recognition that they should refrain from using ‘meltdown,’” the report pointed out.
Then Prime Minister Naoto Kan and then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano have completely denied issuing such instructions on their own.
At the time of the accident, many politicians, bureaucrats and others concerned were working at the Prime Minister’s Office. The third-party probe failed to identify who gave the instructions to Shimizu.
This shows the limitations that the third-party panel faced as it probed the accident based only on interviews it conducted with TEPCO officials. Furthermore, Shimizu’s memories of those days were vague.
However, the probe revealed that TEPCO was paying too much attention to the Prime Minister’s Office’s intentions in responding to the accident.
Operator holds responsibility
When a nuclear power plant is hit by a serious accident, residents living around the facility face severe consequences. It is the primary responsibility of the plant operator to respond appropriately.
In such a situation, the highest priority should be placed on the safety of local residents. The operator must accurately provide local governments and residents with precise and necessary information regarding the situation the power plant is facing.
TEPCO chose to use “core damage,” an expression that made the status of the accident unclear, instead of “meltdown,” even though “meltdown” would have clearly shown the severity of the developments the Fukushima plant was dealing with. The operator cannot avoid criticism for having betrayed local residents with this decision. This kind of stance taken by the utility has caused increasing distrust of nuclear power plants.
At the time of the accident, TEPCO had internal manuals that described what constituted a meltdown. The operator must seriously reflect on why it failed to follow these guidelines.
When it came to public relations announcements at the time of the accident, the investigation committees set up by the government and the Diet both pointed out that the Prime Minister’s Office had some involvement.
An official at the then Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency of the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry was replaced after referring to a “meltdown” during a press conference. TEPCO was told by the Prime Minister’s Office to brief it in advance of any announcements made at press conferences, according to the latest report.
The Niigata prefectural government, whose administrative area is home to TEPCO’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant, has called for uncovering the whole process of how information was manipulated, saying this is a prerequisite for reactivating reactors at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa. The government cannot help but cooperate with the probe.