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Report stating TEPCO avoided use of term 'core meltdown' seen as limited

The head of a third-party commission probing Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO)'s handling of the Fukushima nuclear disaster said June 16 that he did not see the company's in-house ban on the term "core meltdown" following the outbreak of the disaster as part of a cover-up.

"I do not perceive that the company intentionally hid it," lawyer Yasuhisa Tanaka said in a news conference on June 16. "We have not deemed that there was a cover-up."

However, the commission questioned only about 60 TEPCO employees, and its report in many parts echoed the claims TEPCO had made, underscoring the limits of a probe within the company.

It was Niigata Gov. Hirohiko Izumida who grilled TEPCO over its delay in acknowledging that there had been meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant. Niigata Prefecture houses the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant operated by TEPCO, and debate continues over the possibility of bringing the plant's reactors back online. The Niigata Prefectural Government formed its own technical committee and sought an explanation from TEPCO. During this process, it emerged in February this year that there existed a manual at TEPCO providing standards for determining whether there had been a core meltdown. Instructions from then TEPCO President Masataka Shimizu to avoid using the term "core meltdown" also came to light.

Questions earlier arose over whether TEPCO intentionally hid the manual. The third-party panel's report stated that TEPCO employees responding to the Niigata Prefecture technical committee didn't realize that the manual contained standards for ascertaining a core meltdown, while employees who knew about it didn't know that this was an issue for the technical committee. The report said TEPCO's response was imprecise and insufficient, but judged it could not be accepted that the way TEPCO acted was intentional or deliberate.

In the June 16 news conference, Tanaka repeated statements siding with TEPCO, saying, "If (TEPCO's) report documents had stated that there had been a core meltdown, we may have ended up all over the place."

The third-party panel investigated whether there had been any pressure from the prime minister's office regarding TEPCO's avoidance of the term "core meltdown," but questioned only TEPCO employees and did not approach any official from the administration of then Prime Minister Naoto Kan or the now-defunct Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

"As opposed to Diet investigation committees, there was no binding force and we could only question people voluntarily," Tanaka said.

The third-party commission was formed by three lawyers including former public prosecutor Zenzo Sasaki, who recently investigated a money scandal involving Tokyo Gov. Yoichi Masuzoe.

Niigata University professor emeritus Masaaki Tateishi, a member of the technical committee of the Niigata Prefectural Government, said of the report, "I felt that it merely went along the lines of TEPCO's explanations to date, other than clarifying the responsibility of Mr. Shimizu. I wanted it to go deeper into the predisposition of TEPCO."

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