Did Tokyo Electric Power Co. ask government officials to allow all company workers to evacuate the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant at a critical stage of last year’s accident, or didn’t it?
That question must be answered clearly and conclusively. If it is not answered and the contents of the relevant exchanges between the company and officials are not fully uncovered, then the investigations into the disaster will have been of dubious benefit and Japan’s suitability for operating nuclear power plants in the future will be brought into question.
A serious nuclear accident is fundamentally different from any other type of plant incident because those in charge have to make a choice between evacuation and abandoning control over a nuclear plant or continuing work at the facility.
That boils down to a choice between radioactive contamination over a vast area and the lives of workers.
When a major explosion hit the Chernobyl nuclear plant in 1986, officials in charge there were faced with just such a huge decision. As a result, about 30 firefighters who were called on to extinguish the flames died of acute radiation illness and other causes.
In Japan, the central government and electric power companies previously avoided discussion of the issue by hiding behind the myth that such a major accident would never occur here.
Last year's accident presented just such a choice to Japanese officials.
The failure to think about the possibility of a major accident came back to haunt those in charge and contributed to the failures immediately after the accident.
If the decision had been made to evacuate all TEPCO workers from the Fukushima plant site, a much wider area would have been contaminated with radiation and an even more difficult situation would have resulted.
More than a year after the accident, the full facts of what really happened in those crucial exchanges have yet to emerge.
On May 14, Tsunehisa Katsumata, the TEPCO chairman, was called before the Diet's Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission. He said: "The president is responsible for dealing with the accident and the plant manager is the supreme commander at the site."
That means that Masataka Shimizu, the TEPCO president at the time of the accident, and Masao Yoshida, the then Fukushima plant manager, hold the key to uncovering the truth.
TEPCO should cooperate with Diet requests for witnesses and provide information such as the exchanges on its teleconferencing system between TEPCO headquarters and the Fukushima plant.
The trust of the public will be lost if the central government goes ahead with resumption of operations at nuclear plants without unveiling the truth and allowing the issue of whether TEPCO planned to pull out of the Fukushima No. 1 plant to degenerate into an argument over whether or not company executives made such a request.
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