While progress has been slow in efforts to contain the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, signs are emerging that Tokyo Electric Power Co., in the absence of its president, is failing to accurately inform the public about radiation risks.
On Sunday morning, Tepco announced that the concentration of radioactive materials in water found inside a turbine building adjacent to the No. 2 reactor was “around 10 million times (that of) water in a normal reactor core.” But the utility later corrected that information, saying it had “made a wrong estimation.”
On March 21, at Tepco’s head office in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, a public relations officer kicked off a news conference simply by saying, “We have a supplementary remark to make.
“Yesterday, we said the dry vent of the No. 2 reactor was done March 16 to 17, but it was the 15th,” the officer said, correcting the previous day’s announcement, as if nothing has happened, trying to move onto a different topic.
A dry vent is an emergency step to release unfiltered steam containing radioactive materials from the containment vessel to the outside. It is an event that could have a huge impact on the environment outside a nuclear plant.
On March 20, Tepco said, “There were no increases in radiation levels in adjacent areas.” But increases were logged in various adjacent areas, prompting skeptical reporters to raise a series of questions. Still, Tepco officials remained mum.
Although the company has been holding a series of news conferences since the crisis at the Fukushima plant erupted after the March 11 quake and tsunami, attending officials have not been able to provide satisfactory answers to a number of questions. Often, these officials have only been able to repeat words of apology and promises to “check” on the issues brought up. This has left the impression that officials at the news conferences are unable to reply because they themselves have not been given enough information.
Currently, any abnormalities at the nuclear plant and progress regarding ongoing work to cool the reactors and spent fuel rod pools are reported immediately from Fukushima No. 1 to the “integrated liaison headquarters” of the government and Tepco, located on the second floor of the utility’s head office.
But the information shortage has not been limited to that coming out of the head office news conferences, according to one Tepco employee.
At the disaster measures headquarters in Fukushima Prefecture, company public relations officers also have access primarily to “information at key junctures selected by the integrated headquarters.” And with the government occasionally releasing information that has not been made available to those Tepco officers, a sense of unease among them is palpable.
Every time this happens, it feels as if the integrated headquarters is a kind of “black box,” purposely keeping the press officers out of the loop, the employee said.
After setting up the integrated headquarters following the crisis, the government says it has been trying to dismantle compartmentalized management at Tepco. And some say information is being fed in real time.
But Saturday it was revealed that the utility had not informed workers beforehand about high levels of radiation at the No. 3 reactor site where they would be working. The government was also not informed.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano expressed displeasure, telling a news conference, “We cannot give appropriate instructions unless accurate information is provided swiftly.”
By law, Tepco is allowed to monopolize the power utility market in Tokyo and its surrounding regions. As the nation’s biggest utility, it has also been the key backer of the nation’s nuclear power policy and one of the main employers of retired bureaucrats.
Critics say the company lacks cost-consciousness and apparently has no idea about the concept of competition. It is more like a bureaucracy than a business, they say.
By employing Self-Defense Forces elements, the government is supposed to be taking the lead in confronting the crisis, but even some officials are skeptical that Tepco is releasing all the information they need.
And as the crisis deepens and questions emerge about its handling, Tepco President Masataka Shimizu has largely been absent, appearing at only one news conference, on March 13.
Shimizu was not at the integrated headquarters for a number of days from March 16 due to health concerns stemming from fatigue, it was disclosed Sunday. And Vice President Sakae Muto, who has been appearing at the news conferences since March 21, appears to be there primarily to recite memos.