Diet panel tries to verify utility's intentions amid crisis

Edano alleges Tepco planned No. 1 pullout

by Kazuaki Nagata

Staff Writer

Trade minister Yukio Edano, the government’s top spokesman during the March 11 disasters, testified Sunday at the Diet that Tokyo Electric Power Co. considered withdrawing all its workers and abandoning the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant amid the meltdown crisis.

Tepco has claimed it always planned to keep key workers at the plant and never considered abandoning it.

But Edano claimed Tepco President Masataka Shimizu was considering the option when the two spoke over the phone during the late hours of March 14 or in the early morning of March 15, when the pressure inside the No. 2 reactor was getting dangerously high.

“I told Shimizu (over phone) that the situation could only get worse and the disaster would be unstoppable if no workers were left at the plant to handle the accident,” Edano told the panel.

“Then Shimizu stammered, so it was clear that he did not intend to leave some workers (to contain the accident) there,” Edano said.

Speaking at a Diet panel investigating the causes of the Fukushima crisis, Edano said it was probably on the evening of March 14 or the early morning of March 15 that he heard from other key Cabinet members or government officials that Tepco was thinking of pulling out of the plant.

Edano, who was chief Cabinet secretary at the time, said he then received a call from Shimizu and asked about the reported withdrawal plan.

The Fukushima plant has six reactors and seven spent-fuel pools. If Tepco had pulled everyone out, all the fuel rods would have melted down, potentially releasing a catastrophic amount of radioactive material that would have badly contaminated much of eastern Japan.

Whether Tepco, the plant’s operator, was really considering a complete pullout from Fukushima No. 1 has been a major question in the investigation.

Tepco said it never considered the option and has insisted it was thinking of leaving a skeleton crew to handle the accident while temporarily withdrawing everyone else.

Yet key ministers and officials have said it was their understanding that the utility was requesting approval for a total pullout from the dying plant.

After getting wind of the plan, Edano said he called Masao Yoshida, general manager of Fukushima No. 1, and asked him if there was really nothing more that could be done to save the plant.

“Yoshida told me that they were still able to work,” said Edano.

Asked what he thought of then Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s controversial decision to inspect the Fukushima plant on the morning of March 12, Edano said he told Kan he would face criticism for interfering too much in the crisis management operation.

Tepco Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata said that Kan’s visit was not welcome because the workers were desperately working to bring the crisis under control.

But Edano also pointed out that Kan’s visit had the positive effect of gathering critical information for key officials in Tokyo, who had been kept largely in the dark.