Banri Kaieda, the industry minister during the early stages of the Fukushima nuclear accident, lashed out at former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, saying his meddlesome and heavy-handed ways exacerbated the crisis.
Kaieda, the first politician to speak before the Diet’s Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, described a wide range of emotions in recalling the government’s response to the disaster, including exasperation over miscommunications, sorrow for the victims and fear over what could have happened.
But he showed nothing but displeasure on May 17 when describing his former boss.
“Broad authority must be exercised in a restrained manner,” Kaieda said, when asked about Kan frequently giving direct instructions by phone to Masao Yoshida, then manager of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
Kaieda also acknowledged serious communication problems between the prime minister’s office, plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. and the Fukushima No. 1 plant.
It was “as if they were playing a broken telephone game,” he said, referring to the children’s game that shows how information can change the more times it is passed on.
The panel will summon industry minister Yukio Edano, who was chief Cabinet secretary at the time, Kan and Masataka Shimizu, former TEPCO president, before it compiles a report in June.
The Fukushima No. 1 plant lost all power sources when it was hit by the tsunami spawned by the magnitude-9.0 Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011.
When asked why the government took more than three hours before declaring the nation’s first nuclear emergency situation, Kaieda immediately said, “It took time to gain the understanding of the prime minister.”
Kaieda also said he did not understand the purpose of Kan’s inspection of the Fukushima No. 1 plant on the day after the disaster started.
According to sources, Kan went to TEPCO’s head office early on March 15, 2011, and yelled at company officials, telling them they can never abandon the crippled plant.
TEPCO employees had told the Diet investigation panel that they had a “feeling of strangeness” when they were rebuked by the prime minister.
“I have known Kan for a long time, but it is not surprising if people feel a sense of strangeness when they hear Kan’s 'speech' for the first time,” Kaieda said. “Slightly different expressions could have been used.”
One focus of the investigations into the Fukushima nuclear accident is whether TEPCO planned to pull out all its workers from the plant at a crucial stage of the crisis.
TEPCO Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata earlier had told the Diet investigation panel that the utility never considered a total withdrawal.
But Kaieda said on May 17 that Shimizu told him on the phone that TEPCO would evacuate from the Fukushima No. 1 plant to the Fukushima No. 2 plant.
“I do not remember whether the words ‘all (employees)’ were used,” he said. “But I remember that (the conversation was) never on the assumption that some (employees) would remain. Naturally, I understood that all would (leave the plant).”
After his conversation with Shimizu, Kaieda asked industry ministry officials what would happen if all TEPCO employees deserted the plant.
Kaieda said he was told: “It would be disastrous because not only the No. 1 to No. 4 reactors but also the No. 5 and No. 6 reactors would explode.”
Kaieda then discussed the issue with other Cabinet ministers who were at the prime minister’s office.
He said they reached the conclusion: “A (total) withdrawal would lead to a disaster, in which the entire eastern Japan might be lost. We have to ask workers at the plant to hang in there although we feel sorry for them.”
As an example of the poor communications, Kaieda said he told TEPCO to pump seawater into the reactors to cool them on March 12, 2011. But the government decided to reconsider the plan after Kan said the nuclear fuel may again reach a sustaining chain reaction.
In reality, however, seawater injections were never suspended because Yoshida independently told plant officials to disregard the orders from Tokyo.
“I learned about that much later,” Kaieda said.
Kaieda said he also ordered TEPCO to vent reactor containment vessels based on law.
“I left the issue to TEPCO because I thought venting would start soon. But it did not,” he said. “We issued the order and made it clear that the government will take responsibility.”
Kaieda said many things happened when he was industry minister that he must reflect on.
“The words hydrogen explosion were not in my ears. I wonder if (I had been influenced by) the safety myth of nuclear power plants and the cozy relationship of nuclear power village,” Kaieda said.
He also solemnly apologized to victims of the disaster.
“I was later told that some people died--virtually starved--after they remained in a hospital in Okuma (a town in Fukushima Prefecture). They were victims of the accident at the nuclear power plant. I am really sorry,” he said.
Kaieda said the rolling blackouts last year should not have been implemented.
“I thought I would have to resign not only as industry minister but also as a Diet member if someone died (due to the blackouts),” he said.
In June, Kaieda declared that nuclear power plants were safe and said he would approve the restarts of nuclear power plants, with the exception of the Hamaoka nuclear plant in Shizuoka Prefecture.
But he told the Diet investigation panel that he did not believe all plants were problem-free, partly because reactors degenerate due to neutron radiation.
Still, he defended his decision to allow operations to resume at nuclear plants, saying he had a “role to play as industry minister.”
Kaieda also said: “The industry ministry had been too heavily biased in favor of the supply side. I wondered if (the ministry) had not been able to shift to an energy policy administration based more on the demand side.”
In July, three weeks after Kaieda declared that nuclear power plants were safe, the Kan government announced a policy to require stress tests for all nuclear reactors to determine if they were safe enough to be restarted.
Kaieda told the Diet investigation panel that he thought that stress tests were a necessary condition.
In an Asahi Shimbun opinion poll in April, 55 percent of respondents were opposed to restarting two reactors at the Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture, although the government said the results of stress tests were appropriate.
“Opinion polls showed that a majority of people are opposed to restarts,” Kaieda said. “I wonder what we have done over the past year, including myself.”
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