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.”

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