Suga refuses comment on report that 90% of Fukushima workers left after chief's order to stay

Government silent on report Fukushima No. 1 workers fled during crisis

by Reiji Yoshida and Kazuaki Nagata

Staff Writers

The government on Tuesday refused to comment on a media report that Masao Yoshida, the now-deceased chief of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant at the time of the meltdowns, was quoted as saying most of the plant’s workers evacuated in spite of his order to remain.

The daily Asahi Shimbun, which claims to have obtained a copy of an interview with Yoshida carried out by the government panel investigating the Fukushima crisis, started running excerpts of the interview Tuesday. No record of the exchange has been officially disclosed.

Yoshida allegedly told the panel that about 90 percent of the plant’s 720 workers left the premises during the meltdown crisis despite having been ordered by him to stay.

On March 15, 2011, with the plant’s No. 2 reactor out of control, Yoshida and the workers feared its core could melt through the containment vessel, releasing massive amounts of radioactive materials into the environment.

Yoshida, who stepped down as plant chief in December 2011, died of esophageal cancer on July 9 last year.

The latest report has also revived a lingering question about who should stay behind in the event of a nuclear crisis.

At a news conference Tuesday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga declined to comment on the Asahi report. The interview, he said, was conducted on condition that it not be publicized, and is kept under wraps by the Cabinet.

“We don’t know what the Asahi Shimbun has obtained and we can’t say its contents are identical to those the government has,” Suga said.

According to the morning edition of the Asahi, four days after the meltdown crisis erupted, Yoshida ordered about 720 plant workers to evacuate within the plant’s compound as radiation levels from the damaged reactors rose significantly.

Instead, about 650 workers evacuated to the Fukushima No. 2 power plant, about 10 km south, Yoshida reportedly told the panel, leaving about 70 workers behind.

Overseas media outlets then erroneously reported that about 50 workers — dubbed the “Fukushima Fifty” — bravely stayed on to battle the crisis.

“In fact, I didn’t tell (workers) to go to 2F,” the Asahi quoted Yoshida as saying, referring to the still-functioning Fukushima No. 2 power plant.

“I meant to tell (them) to evacuate somewhere within the premises of No. 1 where radiation was low and wait for further instructions,” he told the panel, according to the Asahi.

Yoichi Funabashi, a former senior Asahi writer and now chairman of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation think tank, says that the government has yet to lay out contingency plans for a catastrophe at a nuclear power plant.

“This country operated nuclear plants without such systems. And the situation still hasn’t changed yet,” Funabashi told The Japan Times.

“(Japan) is still unable to draw up a (contingency) plan to deal with the worst-case scenario,” he said.

Funabashi advocates establishing a disaster-response body like the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, which, with presidential approval, can even mobilize military troops.

Meanwhile, Haruki Madarame, the chairman of the Nuclear Safety Commission at the time of the Fukushima meltdowns, played down the significance of the Asahi report.

The plant workers, he argues, might have evacuated to Fukushima No. 2 because Yoshida’s order wasn’t delivered properly and they could find few safe places at the No. 1 plant.

“(You) would be in trouble if asked to find a safe place by yourself without any instructions” from plant managers, Madarame told The Japan Times.

“I don’t know what exactly Yoshida said, and would like to read all of the text” of the interview, he added. “I don’t think (the record) is something that should be hidden from the public eye.”

  • Steve Jackman

    The lack of contigency planning is very common at Japanese companies. At one Japanese company I worked at here in Tokyo, whenever business partners or customers would ask the company about its contigency plans, it would just make something up to placate them. In reality, it was pure fiction since the company had no viable contigency plans in place whatsoever.

    • http://getironic.blogspot.com/ getironic

      There’s an even more taboo topic: the safety of evacuation areas in schools during 3/11.

  • mikethurgood

    It seems rather strange to me, as a foreigner, that, with the very large nuclear power capability in Japan, the Japanese government never established a proper nuclear emergency plan organisation which all the nuclear utilities would be obliged to put into effect.

    Elsewhere across the world – at least as far as I am aware – such plans are in place, and the nuclear utilities are obliged to carry out simulated nuclear accident exercises, including evacuation procedures for local populations. Such exercises are carried out at our South African Koeberg nuclear power station at intervals, in collaboration with the City of Cape Town council.

    The city council is responsible for checking the effectiveness of the various escape roads, although no exercise has ever been contemplated which actually requires the local population to carry out a trial evacuation from their homes. The logistics for carrying out such an exercise would be alarmingly expensive.

  • mikethurgood

    For this second post of mine, I will comment on nuclear power station staff needing to know what they are supposed to be doing in an emergency.

    The only people who would be required to remain on site – providing there isn’t quickly available information to indicate that radioactivity releases are at an unacceptably high level – would be the plant operating shift staff and the safety and fire safety crew. Everyone else would be required to evacuate from the nuclear site as quickly as possible during the stabilising phase following a nuclear incident.

    One can only speculate why the site chief wanted all the power station staff to remain on the site, since no reasons have been given. Far better to get them off the site as quickly as possible as they wouldn’t be required for a few days until remedial clean-up requirements have been assessed and the work can be started.

  • Starviking

    Once again, we have leading language in the headline: staff ‘fled’. They were asked to relocate to a safer area of the plant, but they decided to relocate to ANOTHER nuclear plant in the vicinity. The fact that those who were asked to relocate all chose to go to Daini seems to indicate that someone gave them an order, or persuaded them to go there. Again, not fleeing. Locating themselves near the plant kept them available for duty on short notice.