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Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2011

State, Tepco slammed for crisis response

Lack of disaster preparation, poor communication hit by nuke panel


Staff writer

The government failed to contain the Fukushima crisis early on because of poor communication and information gathering, while Tokyo Electric's failure to prepare for the worst sealed the fate of the tsunami-hit nuclear power plant.

These were the interim findings reported Monday by a third party panel set up to investigate the causes of the accident in Fukushima Prefecture.

The panel, headed by University of Tokyo professor emeritus Yotaro Hatamura, also said that despite being the manager of the plant, Tepco did not give its staff enough expertise to deal with contingencies at the plant.

After the nuclear crisis began on March 11 after being triggered by a megaquake and tsunami that ravaged the Pacific coast of Tohoku, then Prime Minister Naoto Kan and some of his ministers had stationed themselves on the fifth floor of the prime minister's office, where they made key decisions in consultation with top bureaucrats and Tepco officials.

But this group did not share the same level of information with the rest of the ministries, or even with the crisis-management headquarters set up in the basement of the office, the report said.

It also worked the other way. The science ministry, for example, did not tell Kan and his Cabinet ministers about the System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information (SPEEDI), which is designed to predict how radioactive material ejected from the reactors will disperse in the atmosphere, based on weather conditions in the area and the specific characteristics of the terrain.

If the SPEEDI data had been used, the report said, the government could have issued a more informed evacuation order instead of simply drawing a circle with a 20-km radius.

Making things worse was the evacuation order, which wasn't clearly worded and sounded almost as if residents were being told to "just run," the report said.

Some people unknowingly fled the hot zone only to end up in areas with higher radiation levels.

The report also said officials from the trade ministry and the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency were frustrated by Tepco's late updates but didn't really take any effective action to improve the situation either.

Moreover, the panel highlighted Tepco's poor preparation for catastrophic accidents, as exemplified by the mishandling of emergency procedures at reactors 1 and 3.

The workers assumed that reactor 1's isolation condenser, part of its cooling system, was working after the tsunami hit when it was actually not.

During a power loss, the valve in the isolation condenser automatically shuts, preventing water from entering the reactor. But Tepco's staff were unaware of this and assumed the reactor was being cooled. This mistake eventually delayed efforts to cool the reactor, the report said.

At reactor 3, workers turned off one of the emergency cooling systems to switch to another one but found that neither system was working. The result: a delay of seven hours to resume cooling, which accelerated the core meltdown.

Although Tepco had predicted the possibility of a tsunami greater than 9 meters hitting the power plant, Tepco's top officials dismissed the projection and failed to take appropriate measures, the panel said.

Nuclear watchdog NISA didn't push Tepco hard enough to come up with preventive measures either, the report said.

The panel, launched in June, had contacted 456 people involved in the effort to contain the nuclear crisis as of Dec. 16.

Information from Kyodo added



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