The government downplayed a potentially damaging remark that contradicted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s assurance to an international audience that the radioactive water problem at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant is under control.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga on Sept. 13 denied there were discrepancies between the words of Abe and Kazuhiko Yamashita, a technology adviser to Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the stricken Fukushima plant.
“The effects of radioactive materials are confined within the plant’s harbor,” Suga told a news conference. “Abe said the situation is under control, meaning that steps will be taken to prevent the radioactive water from affecting the ocean.”
Suga was responding to the remarks that Yamashita made at a meeting of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, earlier in the day.
“Predictable risks are under control, but what cannot be predicted is happening,” Yamashita said. “We believe that the current conditions show that (the radioactive water problem) is not under control.”
In a speech at an International Olympic Committee meeting in Buenos Aires on Sept. 7 before members picked Tokyo to host the 2020 Games, Abe said, “The situation is under control,” referring to the problem of radioactive water at the Fukushima No. 1 plant.
The prime minister also said the effects of radioactive water have been “completely blocked” within a 0.3-square-kilometer area in the plant’s harbor.
Suga said Yamashita was speaking about individual incidents, such as a recent leak from a storage tank, not the overall issue of radioactive water.
In August, TEPCO workers discovered a leak of an estimated 300 tons of radioactive water from a storage tank. Part of the water is believed to have flowed into the ocean through a ditch, while the remainder appears to have seeped into the ground and contaminated soil and groundwater.
The government also estimates that 300 tons of radioactive water flow into the ocean daily. TEPCO says few radioactive materials have been detected outside the harbor, but that is apparently because they have been diluted.
TEPCO followed the line of the prime minister’s office.
“The prime minister spoke to the effect that contamination is confined within the harbor and that no rise in (radioactive) concentrations has been detected in the sea near the plant,” Masayuki Ono, acting general manager of the utility’s Nuclear Power and Plant Siting Division, told a news conference Sept. 13. “We have the same perception as the prime minister.”
TEPCO carried a statement on its website, saying that the company shares Abe’s view.
The company said Yamashita meant that the leak from the storage tank and other issues are not under control.
But confidence in Abe’s assurance could be undermined because Yamashita effectively refuted it by using the same words. Yamashita’s remarks also showed that the government and TEPCO are not necessarily united in their assessment of the situation at the plant.
Concerns about the radioactive water leaks at the Fukushima No. 1 plant were overshadowing Tokyo’s bid to host the 2020 Games, prompting Abe to give his speech at the IOC meeting to dispel such fears.
But according to sources, even Abe wondered whether saying “under control” could backfire on him until shortly before the speech. He decided to use the phrase because he believed that strong language was necessary to emphasize safety.
Only a few aides decided on the expression, leaving no time to consult with TEPCO in advance, the sources said.
The DPJ plans to go on the offensive in the Diet against Abe, who also told the IOC meeting, “I will take responsibility for deciding on a program to resolve the (radioactive water) issue once and for all.”
“This calls the prime minister’s responsibility into question,” DPJ Secretary-General Akihiro Ohata told reporters Sept. 13. “We will demand clear explanations.”
A senior DPJ official also said, “We want to turn the extraordinary Diet session into one focusing on the problem of radioactive water.”
Lower House member Sumio Mabuchi, who has worked on the issue, is expected to spearhead the party’s efforts to pursue the government’s responsibility.
Abe has started preparations to visit the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant on Sept. 19.
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