Alleged plan to pull No. 1 plant workers returns to haunt Tepco

by Kazuaki Nagata

Staff Writer

A Diet panel investigating the causes of the nuclear crisis recently interviewed key politicians who responded to the early stage of the emergency, bringing a long-unanswered question back into the spotlight: Did Tokyo Electric Power Co. really want to pull all of its workers out of the Fukushima No. 1 power plant?

Tepco has repeatedly denied the allegation, but all of the top-ranking officials handling the disaster at the time — including then Prime Minister Naoto Kan, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano and industry minister Banri Kaieda — believed the utility was trying to abandon the plant.

If the power station had been left with no staff, all six reactors and seven spent fuel pools would have eventually suffered meltdowns, releasing vast radioactive fallout — probably far in excess of the 1986 Chernobyl accident — and contaminating much of eastern Japan.

Public attention is now pinned on how the Diet panel will tackle this key question and what conclusion it will draw in its report next month.

Kiyoshi Kurokawa, a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo who chairs the panel, said it may seize internal Tepco documents to investigate this critical question.

When reporters asked him Sunday if the panel plans to gather records of telephone conversations between Tepco headquarters and the Fukushima plant as well as communications records at the prime minister’s office to seek some physical evidence, Kurokawa said that option is under consideration.

Kurokawa also said the panel may interview then Tepco President Masataka Shimizu. The Diet panel has the legal authority to gather information.

Tepco has been denying that it ever thought of abandoning the plant and has insisted it was thinking of leaving a skeleton crew to handle the accident while temporarily withdrawing everyone else who was not deeply involved with the containment efforts.

But during the latest round of the investigation panel’s hearings, all the key government officials who testified said they believe Tepco was planning a full withdrawal.

Apparently, it was then Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Kaieda who first received a call from Shimizu sometime between the night of March 14 and the early morning of March 15 last year.

According to Kaieda, Shimizu told him that Tepco wanted to “evacuate workers” from the Fukushima No. 1 plant to the nearby Fukushima No. 2 plant.

Shimizu did not mention any “partial” or “temporary” withdrawal of the workers, so Kaieda believed Tepco was abandoning the stricken No. 1 plant for good.

Kaieda asked a senior METI official what would happen if the No. 1 plant was left with no workers. He answered that it would result in “a horrible disaster,” and Kaieda concluded he couldn’t accept what he thought Shimizu was proposing.

Kaieda also said the fact that Shimizu called him directly indicated the graveness of the decision he was trying to deliver to the top officials at the prime minister’s office.

If Tepco was thinking about temporarily evacuating some workers, that would have been handled by the general director at the plant, not by the Tepco president in Tokyo, Kaieda concluded.

Yukio Edano, the chief Cabinet secretary at the time, received a call from Shimizu around the same time.

During a session by the Diet panel on Sunday, Edano said he told Shimizu over the phone that the disaster would be “unstoppable” if the utility withdraw all of its workers.

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

Outside experts who are investigating this critical moment of the crisis remain uncertain over whether Tepco was truly abandoning the plant.

In February, a private-sector investigation committee led by noted journalist Yoichi Funabashi published a report on the Fukushima crisis.

The panel reached no conclusion on whether Tepco was intending a full withdrawal, but it pointed out there is little evidence backing up the utility’s claim that it meant to leave a skeleton crew with the minimum number of necessary workers.

Meanwhile, another panel set up by the government, which is working separately from the Diet panel and the team led by Funabashi, indicated that Tepco might have indeed intended to leave some workers there.

According to an interim report compiled by this panel in December, Masao Yoshida, then the chief director of the No. 1 plant, considered evacuating most of the workers late on the night of March 14.

If this is true, it would back up Shimizu’s claim during a news conference on April 13, 2011, that the evacuation would have not involved all workers.

At that critical time late March 14, pressure inside reactor 2 was rising dangerously high, preventing plant workers from injecting coolant water into the reactor’s core.

Yoshida worried that melted fuel could soon penetrate the containment vessel and massive amounts of radioactive materials would be released into the outside environment.

“To prepare for an emergency, we thought it was definitely a possibility to evacuate workers who weren’t directly involved with the containment work,” Shimizu told the April 13 news conference.

“But it was not an option to withdraw all of the workers. . . . I told (the prime minister).”