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Conflicting Information Drives Anxiety in Japan Nuclear Crisis

Accurate and timely information from Tokyo Electric Power Co. about the accident at its nuclear plant in northern Japan has been hard to come by.

About 60 reporters at a March 16 briefing with utility officials wanted to know whether helicopters would dump seawater on reactors at the Dai-Ichi station to prevent a meltdown. The company was considering the plan, said Masahisa Otsuki, head of the nuclear maintenance division.

At the same time, a live broadcast on a nearby TV screen showed a helicopter taking off with a massive bucket of water hanging from its belly. Reporters barraged the officials.

“We are sorry,” a spokesman said. “We need to check on this.”

Prime Minister Naoto Kan was so frustrated March 15 by a delay in informing him of a fire in reactor No. 1 that he asked utility officials, “What the hell is going on?,” news agencies reported.

Neighboring China, worried about the spread of radiation from damaged reactors, urged Japan to keep the world fully informed of its efforts and to provide timely and accurate information, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said.

‘Confusing Situation’

“It’s a confusing situation, and we’re not getting consistent reports out of Japan,” said Gerry Thomas, professor of molecular pathology at Imperial College London, who studied the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster. “There is an awful lot of misinformation, I think, being put out.”

On March 16, spokesmen for Asia’s biggest utility, also known as Tepco, appeared to indicate that the containment vessel of reactor No. 3 was breached, citing a fire and a surge in radiation as evidence. They later backtracked after no breach was found.

They also told reporters that smoke was coming out of reactor No. 4, then later corrected that to reactor No. 3.

Miho Mak, 33, a Japanese housewife, said in an interview in Hong Kong that she and her husband, Alec, 32, left Tokyo March 15 to stay with his parents in Hong Kong.

“We’re furious about a lack of information from both the government and Tepco,” Miho Mak said. “We also noticed there are conflicting accounts from the parties. Foreign media is reporting the impact of the nuke accident would be disastrous while Japanese media play it down. The gap also urged us to leave.”

Different Roles

The government, Tepco and the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency have different roles to play in disseminating information, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said.

“Each party should take its own responsibility and ensure coordination to avoid information confusion,” he said.

Experts on nuclear accidents say they are frustrated by the lack of information. People searching for news on the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl have crashed the International Atomic Energy Association’s website.

“Tepco are doing the absolute minimum public announcements,” said John Price, a Melbourne-based consultant on industrial accidents and former policy staffer at the U.K.’s National Nuclear Corp. Price also called for more details from General Electric Co. (GE) on its reactors. Tepco operates and maintains the Dai-Ichi plant complex.

GE Designs

All six boiling-water reactors at the Fukushima site are based on GE reactor designs, and the company built Nos. 1, 2 and 6, according to GE. Toshiba built and supplied reactors for 3 and 5, while Hitachi Ltd. built No. 4. The oldest, No. 1, began operation in 1971, according to information on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s website.

GE Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Immelt said in March 14 comments that the company, which runs its nuclear business through a venture with Hitachi Ltd., is offering technical assistance to Tepco and Japan. Steve Bolze, CEO of GE’s Power & Water unit said March 16 that the company stands by its reactor’s design, which exceeded performance set by Japanese regulation standards in the earthquake and tsunami.

U.S. equities extended their retreat March 16 after U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko told lawmakers that all the water had drained from a spent-fuel pool at Fukushima, and high levels of radiation were being released. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index has fallen 2.6 percent since March 11, as of 2:30 p.m. New York time.

Premature Panic

“Investors are selling on the appearance of a negative situation with the nuclear reactors, and you can’t say it’s unfounded because we don’t know how bad this may get,” said Christopher Sheldon, the Boston-based director of investment strategy at BNY Mellon Wealth Management, which oversees $166 billion globally.

People are envisioning “worst-case” scenarios based on unreliable and often incomplete information, mostly collected from media reports, said Geoff Parks, a nuclear engineer at the University of Cambridge in the U.K.

Panic over the possibility of uncovered fuel rods leading to new nuclear reactions was premature, he said. The rods would need to reach at least 2,200 degrees Celsius (4,000 degrees Fahrenheit), the melting point for uranium dioxide, the primary fuel in the rods.

The last known temperature in the fuel ponds was less than 100 degrees Celsius, Tepco officials said.

The Associated Press reported at the time that Tepco disagreed with Jaczko’s assessment, even though most of its measuring equipment was broken.

“We haven’t been able to get any of the latest data at any spent fuel pools,” Otsuki said. “We don’t have the latest water levels, temperatures, none of the latest information for any of the four reactors.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Mehul Srivastava in New Delhi at msrivastava6@bloomberg.net; Shigeru Sato in Tokyo at ssato10@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Tighe at mtighe4@bloomberg.net

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