Panel: Wide communication gaps hampered response in Fukushima

December 27, 2011

Soon after the March 11 earthquake struck, then Prime Minister Naoto Kan and other senior officials gathered in his fifth floor office and effectively became the central decision-making body for the nuclear accident unfolding in Fukushima Prefecture.

But largely unaware of this formation was a task force in the basement of the same building that was set up under a special measures law to deal with nuclear accidents.

Communication was lacking between the two groups--both of whom initially thought they were in charge of dealing with the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

And that was just one of the many major problems in handling information that caused the slow response to the nuclear disaster, according to an interim report issued Dec. 26 by a government panel.

The panel cited not only the warped organizational structure, but also a lackadaisical attitude toward collecting information and an insistence on controlling the flow of data by those in the Prime Minister's Official Residence.

Those problems exacerbated the confusion and affected decisions on cooling the damaged reactors, securing the safety of Tokyo Electric Power Co. workers at the plant, and issuing evacuation orders for residents living near the site, the panel said.

The task force was established at the crisis management center in the basement of the Prime Minister's Official Residence soon after the quake and tsunami struck. The team consisted of high-ranking officials of various government ministries who were coordinating a swift gathering of information to allow for appropriate decisions to be made.

But Kan's group, including Nobuaki Terasaka, then director-general of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), and Haruki Madarame, chairman of the Nuclear Safety Commission, gathered on the fifth floor to discuss how to respond to the accident as well as deciding on the evacuation zones.

There was no legal basis for the formation of Kan's group, the panel said, but it appointed itself the leader in decisions regarding the nuclear accident.

"At a time when the central government had to deal with the accident by bringing together all of its capabilities, communications between the fifth floor and the basement were insufficient," the interim report said.

Data that never bridged that communications gap included the results of a forecast made by the System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information (SPEEDI), which is designed for use in deciding if evacuation orders should be issued in the event of a nuclear accident.

On March 11, officials of the science ministry, which has jurisdiction over SPEEDI, calculated the expected spread of radioactive materials on the assumption that such substances had spewed from the Fukushima No. 1 plant at a rate of 1 becquerel per hour.

The results were passed on to NISA, which handles information dispersal during nuclear accidents. NISA officials, in turn, sent the forecast to the Prime Minister's Official Residence.

Attached to the forecast was a supplementary document noting that the results were of low reliability since they were based on a hypothetical source of radioactive materials.

A Cabinet Secretariat official in the basement who received the information decided it was only reference material and did not report it to the fifth floor.

The panel's interim report said a different course in discussions could have taken place if the SPEEDI forecast had been passed on to those on the fifth floor.

GOVERNMENT, TEPCO NOT IN SYNC

The report also pointed to an insufficient meeting of the minds between central government officials and TEPCO officials, including over the issue of whether seawater should be used to cool the reactors.

On March 12, Kan asked Madarame about the possibility of the reactor core reaching a critical state if seawater was pumped in. Madarame responded that there was little need to consider that possibility, but Kan was not convinced.

Ichiro Takekuro, a senior TEPCO official, called Masao Yoshida, head of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, and strongly asked that he hold off on pumping in seawater. In fact, seawater was already being pumped in at that time.

Because of that development, a decision was made to call the measure an "experimental pumping" of seawater.

Meanwhile, Yoshida decided to continue with the pumping because his primary concern was cooling the reactors.

While a teleconferencing system had been set up, the mikes could not pick up Yoshida's quiet orders to his subordinates to continue pumping in seawater--even if he gave instructions to do otherwise.

Soon thereafter, Yoshida said in a voice everyone could hear to suspend the pumping. No one in the Prime Minister's Official Residence was told what was actually going on at the Fukushima plant.

The lack of communications was also evident on whether TEPCO was pulling out of the stricken plant.

On March 14, TEPCO officials became concerned about the dangers to the many workers at the plant due to damage to the containment vessel of the No. 2 reactor.

Then TEPCO President Masataka Shimizu called Terasaka, the NISA director-general, and said, "We feel there is the possibility of removing our workers if the situation becomes more serious."

Shimizu did not mention that key personnel in charge of the reactor would remain at the plant because their presence was considered an accepted precondition.

However, those in the Prime Minister's Official Residence took Shimizu's comment to mean that all TEPCO workers would abandon the plant.

Kan summoned Shimizu and asked him if TEPCO was giving up on controlling the reactors. Shimizu responded that that was not the case.

ATTEMPTS TO CONTROL INFORMATION

The interim report shows that the central government tried to control the flow of information to the public.

On the morning of March 12, Koichiro Nakamura, NISA deputy director-general for nuclear safety, said at a news conference, "Some of the nuclear fuel has been exposed and it is possible that part of the cladding has begun to melt."

At a 2 p.m. news conference, Nakamura went further, saying, "It is likely that melting of the core has begun." He made the comment after receiving prior approval from Terasaka.

But Terasaka later learned of a request to first inform the Prime Minister's Official Residence before making any announcement. Terasaka issued a warning to Nakamura, and the NISA deputy director-general for nuclear safety stopped giving news conferences.

NISA initially held news conferences at intervals of one to two hours. But the gap between the news conferences gradually widened, and NISA officials stopped referring to melting at the reactor core in subsequent formal news conferences.

On March 12, the head of TEPCO's Fukushima local office released a photo of the No. 1 reactor after its housing building was damaged by an explosion.

Officials at the Prime Minister's Official Residence cautioned Shimizu about releasing such information without contacting the office beforehand. Thereafter, TEPCO officials sought the approval of the Prime Minister's Official Residence before releasing any information, leading to delays in public disclosure of important data, the panel's report said.

On March 14, the pressure in the containment vessel for the No. 3 reactor increased to dangerous levels. Officials at the Fukushima plant informed TEPCO officials of the situation before 8 a.m.

The TEPCO officials then contacted NISA officials on the fifth floor office of the Prime Minister's Official Residence, seeking approval to disclose the information.

However, not only were TEPCO officials kept waiting, but they were also told not to release that information because approval had not been given.

At 9:15 a.m., NISA announced the conditions at the plant. Less than two hours later, at around 11 a.m., an explosion occurred at the No. 3 reactor.

The interim report also criticized comments made at news conferences by Cabinet ministers, including then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano.

Edano repeatedly said about radiation from the Fukushima accident: "There will be no immediate effect on human health."

The report said such wording was difficult to understand.

"It is unclear if it means there is no need to worry about effects on human health or, conversely, if there may be effects on human health over the long term," the report said.

At a Dec. 26 news conference, Edano said, "I said from the time I was chief Cabinet secretary that transmission of information to the public was not sufficient, so I believe that is something we have to reflect on and learn from."

NISA'S PASSIVE STANCE

NISA's passive stance in gathering information also came under fire in the interim report.

A teleconferencing system allowed those at TEPCO headquarters, the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant and an off-site center in Fukushima to share information almost simultaneously about what was happening within the plant. But NISA officials never learned about that system and were slow in sharing information.

NISA did not send any official to TEPCO. The agency also made no effort to bring in a TV monitor for teleconferencing purposes, the report said.

"There was a lack of awareness and sense of purpose of fulfilling the role of being an aggressive and active hub for information by taking flexible measures," the interim report said.

NISA inspectors at the Fukushima plant also appeared to have deserted their posts at a crucial time.

On March 12, the five inspectors at the plant obtained approval from NISA's head office to move to the off-site center 5 kilometers from the plant because radiation levels had increased.

That move was made during a critical time at the plant. Alternative methods of pumping in water and venting were desperately needed because the pressure vessel was believed to have been damaged due to an increase in pressure within the containment vessel of the No. 1 reactor.

"Doubts remain as to whether the decision to leave the site at a particularly crucial time was the appropriate thing to do," the report stated.

The inspectors received documents from TEPCO workers and passed on that information by phone to NISA.

No effort was made to directly oversee the pumping of water into the reactors nor was any attempt made to play a leading role in taking part in discussions on responding to the nuclear accident.

"There was a lack of awareness of being in a position on the front lines for the central government in dealing with the accident," the report stated.

(This article was written by Jin Nishikawa and Naoya Kon.)

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  • The main players in the Fukushima nuclear accident, clockwise from upper left: Masataka Shimizu, TEPCO president; Prime Minister Naoto Kan; Haruki Madarame, Nuclear Safety Commission chairman; and Nobuaki Terasaka, director-general of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (Asahi Shimbun file photos)
  • The March 11 tsunami sweeps over coastal levees near the No. 5 reactor at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. (Provided by TEPCO)

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