A third-party panel set up by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) to investigate the company's cover-up of the core meltdowns that occurred at its Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant following the March 11, 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami revealed in a report last month that then TEPCO president Masataka Shimizu had ordered the company not to use the term "meltdown" to describe what had occurred. The report also stated that the organizational cover-up took place against a backdrop of "what is presumed to be a request that came from the prime minister's office."
Then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano has objected to the report, saying that the very people who were involved, himself included, were not consulted by the panel before it drew its conclusion. Edano also said that he sent a letter of protest to TEPCO seeking an apology and a retraction of the report.
There are many missing pieces to the investigative report, but without a doubt, TEPCO acted irresponsibly toward local residents. A meltdown refers to a severe incident in which nuclear fuel melts and leeches out. If the facts had been revealed to the public, they could have fled further and avoided going outdoors. TEPCO bears a heavy responsibility for exposing local residents to risks more dangerous than they would have been otherwise.
On March 14, 2011, three days after the nuclear crisis broke out, then TEPCO vice president Sakae Muto was in the midst of a press conference when a company PR official passed him a handwritten note indicating that a core meltdown had taken place, and whispered into his ear that "the prime minister's office has instructed that this expression not be used." The third-party investigative panel concluded that this message was from then TEPCO president Shimizu. In accordance with the instructions, Muto and TEPCO used the term "core damage," a word with a less serious connotation than core meltdown, making the incident seem less severe than it actually was.
The residents of the Fukushima Prefecture town of Namie -- the northerly neighbor of the town of Futaba, one of the two towns that the stricken nuclear plant straddles -- were forced to evacuate without crucial information. According to the Namie Municipal Government, some 8,000 of the town's 21,000 or so residents evacuated on March 12, 2011, to the town's Tsushima district, further northwest of the nuclear plant. At the time, however, the wind had been blowing in that direction, putting the residents directly in the path of radioactive materials being emitted in massive amounts from the crippled nuclear plant.
Local resident Hidezo Sato, 71, evacuated from the town center and stayed at a community center in Tsushima until March 15. "There were other evacuees who said we should be fleeing farther away, but I didn't think the situation was that grave," he recalls. "If we'd known there'd been a core meltdown, it would've determined how we evacuated." The community center where he was taking refuge was overflowing with people. Not knowing that he was downwind from the troubled nuclear plant, Sato sat by a fire outdoors. He also saw children going into grassy areas, where radioactive materials are known to collect.
"I would've avoided going outdoors had I known there'd been a meltdown," says Yoko Hashimoto, 64, who also evacuated to the Tsushima district. "Five years have passed since the disaster broke out, and I'm worried that I'll start seeing the health effects of radiation exposure. Why wasn't the meltdown announced right away?" It is only natural for residents whose safety was all but ignored by TEPCO to feel anger toward the utility. The power company had always emphasized the happy coexistence of its nuclear plants and local communities. Yet when a serious incident took place, the local residents were neglected. This more than explains why the residents are distrustful and angry.
It wasn't until at least two months later that TEPCO admitted that core meltdowns had occurred. And even then, it was only because the then Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, which has since been disbanded, demanded an overall report on the disaster. Moreover, it wasn't until February of this year that TEPCO announced that it had discovered an internal company manual stipulating that damage to 5 percent or more of nuclear fuel be defined as a nuclear meltdown. Until then, the utility had cited the fact that it didn't have any standards by which to define nuclear meltdowns as its excuse for delaying the announcement that such a phenomenon had occurred. But indeed, according to the manual, then vice president Muto could have said at the press conference on March 14, 2011, that a nuclear meltdown had taken place.
Hirotada Hirose, professor emeritus at Tokyo Woman's Christian University and an expert in disaster risk studies, says that while local residents may have been thrown into confusion if information about the core meltdown had been made public, the merits of them evacuating farther away and reducing their exposure to radiation would have outweighed the possible risks of panic. "The physical and psychological damage that residents have suffered because information was not provided to them are far greater." He adds, "Regardless of whether or not TEPCO actually received instructions from the prime minister's office (not to use the expression 'core meltdown'), it should have decided on its own to release accurate information. TEPCO lacks awareness and responsibility as the operator of nuclear plants that are at risk of creating serious crises."
There is still much more room for improvement in TEPCO's attitude toward its responsibilities. After the report on the meltdown cover-up was released, TEPCO President Naomi Hirose was asked at a press conference how the utility expected to work with the prime minister's office if another serious incident were to occur. He refused to respond in clear-cut terms, instead stating, "That's a difficult question to answer in general terms."
On the one hand, the third-party investigative panel should be praised for digging up the fact that then TEPCO president Shimizu instructed the cover-up. On the other hand, however, the probe into the utility's relationship with the prime minister's office is insufficient. Residents harbor distrust toward not just TEPCO, but the government as well. Local residents will remain unconvinced unless further investigation into the extent and the manner in which the government interfered with the nuclear crisis is conducted.
Core meltdowns are not a problem specific to TEPCO. Whenever there's a problem surrounding a nuclear plant, it often turns out that similar things are taking place at other plants run by other utilities. Can we say that TEPCO's latest case is an isolated event? There's a fear that when a nuclear accident takes place, we won't be able to trust the power companies involved to provide us with appropriate information that respects and reflects the needs of affected residents. If utilities are going to restart halted nuclear reactors and extend the number of years its aging reactors are allowed to operate, they must take away important lessons from the Fukushima crisis and be prepared to disseminate information to the public from their standpoint. (By Mirai Nagira, Science and Environment News Department)