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Probe finds Japan kept quiet on risk of nuclear disaster

A report released today found the Japanese government played down the risk of nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima plant after the earthquake and tsunami last March.

Japanese police officers during the search and recovery operation after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan last March
Japanese police officers during the search and recovery operation after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan last March
Image: AP Photo/Hiro Komae

THE JAPANESE GOVERNMENT withheld information about the full danger of last year’s nuclear disaster from its own people and from the United States, according to an independent report released today.

The report, compiled from interviews with more than 300 people, delivers a scathing view of how leaders played down the risks of the meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant that followed a massive  earthquake and tsunami on 11 March last year.

The report by the private Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation also paints a picture of confusion during the days immediately after the accident. It says the US government was frustrated by the scattered information provided by Japan and was sceptical whether it was true.

The US advised Americans to leave an area within 50 miles from the plant, far bigger than the 12-mile Japanese evacuation area, because of concerns that the accident was worse than Japan was reporting.

The misunderstandings were gradually cleared up after a bilateral committee was set up on 22 March and began regular meetings, according to the 400-page report.

The report, compiled by scholars, lawyers and other experts, credits then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan for ordering Tokyo Electric Power, the utility running the plant, not to withdraw its staff and to keep fighting to bring it under control.

TEPCO’s president at the time, Masataka Shimizu, called Kan on 15 March and said he wanted to abandon the plant and have all 600 TEPCO staff flee, the report said. That would have allowed the situation to spiral out of control, resulting in a much larger release of radiation.

A group of about 50 workers was eventually able to bring the plant under control.

TEPCO, which declined to take part in the investigation, has denied it planned to abandon Fukushima Dai-ichi. The report notes the denial, but says Kan and other officials had the clear understanding that TEPCO had asked to leave.

But the report blames Kan for attempting to micromanage the disaster and for not releasing critical information on radiation leaks.

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Kan’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the report.

The report also concluded that government oversight of nuclear plant safety had been inadequate, ignoring the risk of tsunami and the need for plant design renovations, and instead clinging to a “myth of safety.”

“The idea of upgrading a plant was taboo,” said Koichi Kitazawa, a scholar who heads the foundation that prepared the report. “We were just lucky that Japan was able to avoid the worst-case scenario. But there is no guarantee this kind of luck will prevail next time.”

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