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Extent of TEPCO cover-up over meltdown must be clarified

A panel investigating Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s response to the triple meltdown during the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster revealed an unpardonable breach of trust by the operator of the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

But there is still a lot more work to be done by the panel to uncover the full scope of the utility’s apparent meltdown cover-up.

Immediately after the catastrophic accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant, then TEPCO President Masataka Shimizu instructed employees not to use the term “meltdown,” leading to a delay in the official announcement, according to a report compiled by the investigation panel commissioned by the company.

A reactor meltdown, or the melting of nuclear fuel in the core of a reactor, is about as bad as it gets.

The panel’s report suggests that in the middle of this unprecedented nuclear disaster the top official of the plant operator was trying to conceal the severity of what was unfolding from the public, including people living in areas around the plant.

For four long years, TEPCO kept giving false explanations about the delay in the announcement of the reactor meltdowns to Niigata Prefecture, which was demanding the truth of what happened. The company claimed it did not have the criteria for defining and determining a meltdown. The firm also said no in-house instruction was given to employees telling them not to use the term.

In February this year, however, the company said it had “found” an in-house manual that spelled out such criteria and set up the third-party panel of legal experts to get to the truth about the delayed announcement of the meltdowns.

With the revelations made in its report, can the panel claim it has accomplished its mission?

We have to say the answer is “no,” although the disclosure of the former TEPCO president’s instruction concerning the meltdowns is definitely a step forward.

What is particularly baffling is the opinion about the president’s instruction voiced by Yasuhisa Tanaka, the former president of the Sendai High Court who headed the investigation. “We cannot say for certain that there was a deliberate cover-up by the company,” Tanaka said during a news conference.

At the time of the accident, a reactor meltdown was defined by the nuclear disaster special measures law as an emergency situation that must be reported. The conditions of the reactors at the Fukushima plant fulfilled TEPCO’s criteria, which say a meltdown means that 5 percent or more of the core of a reactor has been damaged.

But the utility initially denied that a meltdown was happening, while the president instructed employees not to use the term. If this was not a cover-up, what was it?

Also questionable is the panel’s suggestion that the TEPCO chief was probably acting on requests from the prime minister’s office in giving the instruction. The panel interviewed about 60 former and current TEPCO officials, but no government officials or bureaucrats who were involved in dealing with the crisis.

In explaining the panel’s failure to interview key government officials, Tanaka said, “Our authority to investigate is limited, and it is difficult (to uncover the entire truth) in such a short time.” But the panel didn’t even request interviews with them.

Both Naoto Kan, who was then prime minister, and Yukio Edano, who was chief Cabinet secretary, rejected the allegations that the government told TEPCO not to declare a meltdown.

As for the related requests made by Niigata Prefecture, TEPCO says it will continue its joint efforts with the prefectural government to uncover the facts.

The company has a responsibility to clarify the broad picture of the accident and publish the findings of its probe. But the Diet has its own role to play.

Whether the prime minister’s office actually asked TEPCO not to declare a reactor meltdown is not the only remaining mystery about the exchanges between the government and the company during the crisis. Only some fragments of information about the communications between the two sides have been revealed.

A Diet investigation committee has drawn up a report on its inquiry into the accident. But there are still many questions that the Diet should try to answer by using its right to investigate state affairs.

We need to learn all vital lessons from the devastating nuclear accident so as to avoid making the same mistakes.

That requires unearthing all the related facts first. It is our responsibility to tackle this challenge for future generations.

June 20, 2016 - Posted by | Fukushima 2016 | , , ,

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