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Wednesday, June 8, 2011
Official probe begins into nuclear disaster
Independent panel granted power to grill all officials
By MASAMI ITO
An independent panel of experts launched a probe Tuesday into the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant amid strong domestic and international criticism that the government and Tepco have bungled their response.
This is the first official investigation since the deadly earthquake and tsunami hit the Tohoku region March 11 and crippled the plant, leading to the worst nuclear crisis since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
Headed by Yotaro Hatamura, a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, the panel will scrutinize the incident from a broad view with the aim of containing the damage and preventing similar disasters.
The investigators agreed not to turn the probe into a blame game. Their stated goal is to ensure that "the true nature of the accident" is unveiled.
They will have the authority to question Tokyo Electric Power Co. and government officials as well as Cabinet ministers, including the prime minister.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan, present at the panel's kickoff, stressed the importance of the probe, especially amid international concern over the accident.
"The world's eyes are on (the panel) . . . and I want the panel to ultimately compile a report that answers to" the international community, Kan said. "I think Japan's reputation as a nation depends on whether it can gain international trust by disclosing everything gleaned in the investigation into the cause" of the crisis.
Kan also underscored the panel's independence.
"I would like this committee to look into the incident and hand down judgments completely independent from the past nuclear administration," said Kan, who will only attend future meetings if asked to make statements. "There have been good things as well as problems with the nuclear administration, but I don't want (the panel) to assess the situation within such a range," he said.
The 10-member group was chosen carefully to ensure they had no vested interests in nuclear power. It includes Yukio Takasu, a former representative to the United Nations, Michio Furukawa, the mayor of Kawamata, Fukushima Prefecture, and author Kunio Yanagida, known as an expert on crisis management.
"Nuclear power has extremely high energy density, and I think it is dangerous," Hatamura, an expert on issues pertaining to human error, said during the meeting. "I think it was a mistake that this dangerous thing was considered safe."
After the meeting, Hatamura told reporters that the panel will draft an interim report by the end of the year and compile a final report once the nuclear plant is stabilized.
But he admitted he has no idea when that may be.
Hatamura also said the panel is not looking to point fingers at people deemed responsible for the accident, because that could have the negative effect of them keeping silent out of fear.
"If the person being questioned was about to make a statement but refused over the possibility of being held accountable, we may not be able to unveil the truth," Hatamura said. "I think it is more important for us to find out the truth."
He said a different party should pursue any culpability.