A Diet panel investigating last year's nuclear disaster harshly evaluated the Kan administration's immediate response, saying it paid scant attention to radiation fallout and the safety of residents near the stricken plant.
It said Prime Minister Naoto Kan and key officials did not release timely information to the public as the crisis unfolded because they were more concerned with averting panic.
The Diet's Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission also said June 9 that a delay in releasing updated information and orders to evacuate caused an already chaotic situation to escalate sharply.
It cited a survey of 10,633 evacuees from areas around the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, where reactors went into a meltdown.
The panel's findings are expected to be incorporated in its final report to be drawn up by the end of this month.
The panel said its survey between March and April found that residents were kept in the dark as the crisis deepened and not told why they had to evacuate.
"I didn't know why I had to flee," said a former resident of Minami-Soma. "I hadn't heard of the hydrogen explosion at the plant. Information came in hopelessly late. In hindsight, I feel we were slighted."
Part of Minami-Soma lies within a 20-kilometer evacuation zone around the plant that was set up March 12, a day after the quake and tsunami struck.
When the government issued a state of nuclear emergency at 7:03 p.m. on March 11, about four hours after the magnitude-9.0 Great East Japan Earthquake, less than 10 percent of respondents in 12 municipalities that were subsequently designated as areas to be evacuated were aware that a disaster was in the making, according to the survey.
The government issued evacuation orders for people living in a 10-km radius of the plant at 5:44 a.m. on March 12. The evacuation zone was expanded to a 20-km radius at 6:25 p.m. that day.
By then, more than 80 percent of respondents in municipalities such as Futaba, Okuma, Tomioka and Naraha, which are in the evacuation zone, had been told about the accident and order to evacuate.
But in Iitate and Kawamata, which are located out of the zone, less than 50 percent of respondents were aware of the situation.
The panel attributed the discrepancy to the lack of an emergency radio system in some communities and the failure of the central government to pass on vital information to local entities.
In the towns of Futaba and Naraha, 40 percent of the inhabitants learned of the crisis through the radio system and efforts by local police.
Only 10 percent replied likewise in Minami-Soma, Iitate and Kawamata. In the three municipalities, respondents got their information from TV, radio and the Internet.
"Young people contacted their friends via cellphone to make sure they evacuated," said one respondent from Kawauchi village, part of which is within the evacuation zone. "But we had received no official information about evacuation from anywhere. I decided to flee after I learned my neighbors were evacuating because of the danger (from radiation)."
The survey also pointed to mass confusion resulting from the central government’s delay in providing useful information on radioactive fallout.
Half of residents in Namie temporarily evacuated to an area where high radiation levels were measured.
More than 60 percent of inhabitants of the towns of Futaba, Okuma, Tomioka, Naraha, Hirono and Namie were forced to evacuate at least four times.
One respondent was from Iitate, a village where radioactive levels were high even though it is located outside of the evacuation zone. The person complained about the central government’s failure to alert people about the levels of radioactive fallout from the plant.
"Villagers had been exposed to radiation all the while until the central government designated Iitate as an area to be evacuated on April 22," the respondent said.
The panel sent questionnaires to 21,000 households selected at random from 55,000 that evacuated from the 12 municipalities. The panel received replies from 10,633 households.
The panel said it found no evidence that Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the plant, was considering a full withdrawal of its workers from the stricken facility.
Masataka Shimizu was president of TEPCO at the time of the crisis last year. In a panel hearing June 8, Shimizu denied statements by Kan and other senior government officials that it was their understanding the utility was weighing whether to abandon the plant.
Countering to Shimizu's accounts, Tetsuro Fukuyama, deputy chief Cabinet secretary at the time, said everybody in the Kan administration was under the impression that TEPCO was considering abandoning the plant.
"We were discussing how to handle the crisis with a shared sense of alarm as the company was trying to pull out of the plant," Fukuyama told during a speaking engagement at the University of Tokyo on June 9.
He said it was meaningless to hear Shimizu recall now what he might have meant at the time.
"With each passing minute, we have to make a decision," Fukuyama told an audience at the university. "Our understanding of what (TEPCO) planned to do affected our decisions later."
The session on June 8 also showed that TEPCO envisaged leaving a team of 10 workers at the plant in a worst-case scenario.
But Shuya Nomura, a member of the panel, said June 9: "Ten is the number of colleagues Masao Yoshida, head of the plant at that time, was tentatively thinking about. It is not the number that TEPCO settled on as the number of workers to remain in the plant."
The Diet panel also did not credit Kan with preventing TEPCO's full withdrawal when he stormed into the utility’s headquarters early on March 15 and ruled out any such action.
Its critical assessment of Kan's role came in sharp contrast with the findings by the Independent Investigation Commission on the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Accident, a private panel.
In the report released in February, the private panel noted Kan's action prompted the utility to remain in the plant.
The Diet panel also criticized Kan and other officials for calling Yoshida and senior TEPCO officials at the plant to ask rudimentary and inane questions.
"(TEPCO) officials who were in charge of responding (to the crisis) at the site were forced to devote extra time" to reply to them, it said.
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