Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s chairman blamed the government, the prime minister and the TEPCO president for the confusion following the accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant, but remained elusive when asked about his own responsibilities.
"We caused enormous trouble," Tsunehisa Katsumata said on May 14 as an unsworn witness at the Diet's Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission.
During the course of questioning, Katsumata became the most animated when describing former Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s response to the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, which was triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami on March 11 last year.
Katsumata said valuable time was wasted because Kan and Goshi Hosono, a special adviser to the prime minister on the nuclear accident, made direct phone calls to issue instructions to Masao Yoshida, the general manager of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.
"The highest commander (Yoshida) had to take command of the power station at the height of confusion, but he had his time taken away by interrogatory conversations," Katsumata told the session. “That was not a commendable thing."
Katsumata also blamed the prime minister's office for the chaos in decision-making concerning injections of seawater to cool the damaged No. 1 reactor after power was knocked out at the plant.
TEPCO said it was instructed by the prime minister's office to stop injecting seawater into the reactor to avoid the risk of re-criticality.
"After all, (Kan) was the prime minister of Japan," Katsumata said. "I could not (defy him and) call for a continuation of the water injection."
Kan has denied issuing such an order.
It was later learned that Ichiro Takekuro, a senior TEPCO official who was on duty at the prime minister's office, told the utility's head office that Kan had not yet given the go-ahead to pump in seawater, and that discussions were continuing on the matter. Kan did not know at that time that seawater was already being used to cool the reactor.
Upon hearing Takekuro’s words, TEPCO's leadership gave the order to Yoshida to stop pumping in seawater. But the Fukushima plant chief disobeyed that instruction and continued injecting seawater into the crippled reactor, which proved to be the right decision.
Since resigning as prime minister, Kan has repeatedly said that Masataka Shimizu, TEPCO's president at the time, asked the government about withdrawing all workers from the stricken plant. Kan said he sternly rejected that request and ordered the utility to continue the fight to bring the situation under control.
Katsumata dismissed Kan’s statements as "totally untrue."
He said that Shimizu told the government that he wanted to evacuate all workers except for about 70 people who would remain at the plant and continue to deal with the situation. That context was also understood by Kan, Katsumata argued.
But during the session, the words of Katsumata, who became TEPCO president in 2002 and has been TEPCO chairman since 2008, lost their edge when he was questioned about his own status and role in the nuclear crisis.
"Are the chairman and the president on equal terms?" a member of the investigation commission asked.
"I am a little on the senior side," Katsumata answered.
When asked who was responsible for taking command at TEPCO during an emergency, Katsumata quickly pointed to others.
"It's the president, of course," he said. "And his primary deputies are the executive vice presidents."
Katsumata was visiting China on business when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck. He returned to TEPCO headquarters in Tokyo around 4 p.m. the following day.
A commission member pointed out that the essential period to respond to the nuclear accident was when Katsumata was absent.
But the chairman said: "It's difficult to tell what I could have done even if I had not been absent."
At that point in the session, a commission member lashed out at Katsumata: "You sound like you’re saying, 'I am not responsible.' Who else, as a company chairman, would talk like that?"
But Katsumata remained elusive. "I am convinced I have been making steadfast endeavors on the front of safety measures," he said.
Katsumata also came under fire for TEPCO’s lack of preparation for a giant tsunami striking the coast of Fukushima Prefecture. A commission member pointed out that in 2008, TEPCO produced a simulation showing that a tsunami up to 15.7 meters in height could swamp the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.
The TEPCO chairman maintained he had never heard the results of the simulation at the time.
"The majority view in the company was that no major tsunami was likely," he said.
Another commission member noted that the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency in 2006 warned TEPCO about the dangers of a total loss of power due to a tsunami.
"I heard about it later," Katsumata said. "We made no decision on whether (a major tsunami) could hit or not."
He also said he wasn’t sure what kind of decision TEPCO could have made before the Great East Japan Earthquake, even if the utility had been able to foresee a total loss of power supply at the plant.
Commission member Reiko Hachisuka, an evacuee from Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, reminded Katsumata that TEPCO kept telling local residents that nuclear plants were safe. Hachisuka is the chairwoman of the Okuma commerce and industry society.
"We also shared that belief," Katsumata responded.
Kiyoshi Kurokawa, the investigation commission chairman, told a news conference later in the day: "I believe (today's session) shed light on (TEPCO's) lack of a sense of crisis as an organization handling nuclear power."
He also criticized Katsumata for failing in his responsibility to fully explain what happened during the nuclear crisis.
"(Katsumata) kept avoiding giving clear remarks on specific matters," Kurokawa said.
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