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Editorial: Probe into Fukushima nuke plant's 'meltdown' cover-up lacks credibility

A third-party panel set up by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) to investigate a 2011 accident at its tsunami-hit Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant has released a report that then TEPCO President Masataka Shimizu had ordered that the company never use the phrase, "reactor core meltdown."

It is highly problematic for the head of a company that caused a serious accident, which could threaten the lives and health of people, to issue an order that could be taken as covering up the seriousness of the disaster. The vice president in charge of the nuclear power business and other executives, as well as some employees, deserve criticism that they followed such an instruction.

Considering that the cover-up allegations surfaced more than five years after the outbreak of the nuclear disaster, it is difficult to believe that TEPCO has regained the public's confidence in itself.

The term "Reactor core meltdown" is scientifically a vague phrase. Still, TEPCO's in-house manual on nuclear power generation states that if over 5 percent of the core of a reactor is damaged, it should be recognized as a meltdown. If TEPCO had followed this definition, the company could have deemed three days after the outbreak of the crisis that core meltdowns had occurred in the plant's No. 1 and 3 reactors. However, it was not until two months later that TEPCO officially admitted that meltdowns had occurred at the power station. Furthermore, it was as late as this past February that the existence of the in-house manual came to light.

TEPCO had initially claimed that it was unaware of the existence of the manual but a certain number of employees knew about the manual. The utility had also explained that the firm did not make a clear decision not to admit that meltdowns occurred at the Fukushima plant. However, since the president issued such an order, it is natural to suspect that the firm covered up the meltdowns.

Questions should also be raised over the way the third-party investigative panel conducted the probe. Its investigative report suggests that Shimizu issued the order under pressure from the prime minister's office. "It is assumed that the company understood that it had been asked by the prime minister's office to exercise caution about publicly acknowledging that reactor core meltdowns occurred," the report states. However, the panel had failed to even question the then prime minister or chief Cabinet secretary. The panel later explained that it had neither the authority nor the time to question these top officials.

It is extremely sloppy that the panel suggested that there was political intervention into TEPCO's response to the accident based only on presumptions, as it is an important point. It could give the public the impression that the panel shifted the blame away from TEPCO to the prime minister's office.

Moreover, the report says it cannot be recognized that the company had intentionally concealed the existence of the definition of reactor core meltdowns in the manual for five years, hinting that the panel sided with the power company. As such, it is difficult to trust the panel.

These problems apparently remind the public that there are limits to investigations by third-party panels, such as those conducted into money scandals involving former Tokyo Gov. Yoichi Masuzoe and House of Representatives member Yuko Obuchi. Even if these bodies are called "third-party" fact-finding panels, it is highly questionable how far they are independent since these are set up by those involved in scandals.

Those involved in wrongdoing should not use third-party panels they set up to justify their practices or evade responsibility.

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