Face of government in Fukushima aftermath blasts Abe push for nuclear power

by and

Bloomberg

In his trademark blue jumpsuit, the bleary-eyed Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano became the government’s face of the Fukushima nuclear crisis as he faced the press every few hours. Five years later, he has stern words for Japan’s atomic watchdog, the plant’s operator and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s nuclear restart policy.

Edano, secretary-general of the now-opposition Democratic Party of Japan, refutes claims by the current administration that the Nuclear Regulation Authority is imposing the world’s most stringent safety standards in the earthquake-prone nation.

“The government’s explanation is mistaken,” the 51-year-old said in an interview last week at his Tokyo office. “The regulations have not won international recognition as the world’s toughest.”

The NRA was set up in 2012 by Edano’s party to replace a predecessor criticized for ignoring warnings before the Fukushima disaster and having cozy ties with operators. The NRA judges whether facilities meet safety guidelines for restart, and is viewed by the International Atomic Energy Agency as demonstrating independence and transparency.

The regulatory body regards its regulation as “one of the most stringent standards in the world,” and from time to time, has been inaccurately quoted and criticized as if we were saying it was “the most,” NRA spokesman Go Kobayashi said in an email.

Edano’s comments come just weeks after three former executives of plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. were indicted for professional negligence over the disaster. The indictments are the first time a court will examine whether the failure to prevent the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl constituted a crime.

Last month, Tepco said that it knew of meltdowns at the Fukushima reactors in the days after the March 11, 2011 disaster — something it refused to acknowledge for about two months after the accident, triggering speculation about a cover-up.

Edano said that on March 14 — three days later — he thought the possibility of a meltdown was very high. “While we amateurs took action based on that hypothesis, Tepco — who are supposed to be the professionals — kept on saying ‘things are not yet clear,’ ” he said. “It was we amateurs who were right.”

Regarding Tepco’s announcement that it was aware of the meltdown, Edano said it was better to be late than “continuing to hide” this information. “It’s a problem if Tepco doesn’t take responsibility like it should.”

Tepco spokesman Yukako Handa said by email that the company will investigate the sequence of events and causes of why it couldn’t declare the nuclear core meltdown.

Edano was born in Tochigi Prefecture, which borders Fukushima; his alma mater is the University of Tohoku in Sendai, a coastal city devastated by the tsunami. His role during the crisis was a combination of deputy prime minister and chief of staff, holding an average of five televised briefings a day in the weeks after the magnitude-9.0 earthquake and enormous tsunami hit northeastern Japan.

Getting about two hours sleep a night, he patiently provided details on radiation levels, evacuation orders, power rationing and recovery efforts. He was praised on social media for his work ethic, with some pleading with him to get more sleep.

The Abe administration goal is to have nuclear power make up as much as 22 percent of the nation’s energy needs by 2030. A total of about 30 to 33 reactors of Japan’s operable 43 reactors will have to be restarted to meet the target, according to Syusaku Nishikawa, a Tokyo-based analyst at Daiwa Securities Co.

Edano said he had deep reservations about the government’s restart plan.

“As things stand I strongly question whether evacuation plans can be said to be sufficient,” he said. “The government isn’t getting involved, the government isn’t taking responsibility.”

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters in Tokyo on Tuesday that Edano’s criticism of the plan was “way off the mark.” He said that safety was the top priority and there were no problems whatsoever with the evacuation plan.

A Kyodo News survey over the weekend showed that about two-thirds of local government leaders across Japan wanted the government to reduce its reliance on nuclear power, or scrap it completely.

Still, Edano said he felt it was his duty to serve the public in a time of crisis, giving news conferences even when he had no new information to provide. He continues to feel that burden.

“Even though five years have passed, people are still living in temporary housing, and many are living a long way from the hometowns they want to return to,” he said. “Even though we are now in opposition, I always feel a heavy responsibility as part of the administration at the time.”

Asked whether he had kept any of the jumpsuits, Edano said: “They are government property. I can’t even take one as souvenir.”