Fukushima Probe No. 3 Gives Taste of Confrontations to Come

The head of Japan’s latest investigation into the Fukushima nuclear disaster promised to dig deeper than previous inquiries into the events that unfolded after an earthquake and tsunami struck the country in March.

A separate government investigation concluded last month that the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant withstood the shaking of a magnitude-9 quake on March 11, before succumbing to the tsunami that followed, endorsing findings by Tokyo Electric Power Co. Three reactors had meltdowns after cooling and backup power was knocked out at the plant in the worst nuclear catastrophe since Chernobyl in 1986.

“The most important question the panel needs to answer is how much damage was caused by the earthquake, rather than the tsunami,” Tetsuo Ito, the head the Atomic Energy Research Institute at Kinki University in western Japan, said by phone yesterday. “If the panel finds evidence the quake damaged critical functions, all of Japan’s atomic stations will need to be reviewed.”

The latest investigation panel appointed by Japan’s parliament with subpoena powers may publicly question officials including former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, said Kiyoshi Kurokawa, chairman of the new probe, in a briefing with reporters after the inquiry’s first open meeting in Tokyo. Kurokawa, a professor emeritus at Tokyo University, said he will present his findings by June.

Reactor Meltdowns

The report released on Dec. 26 by a committee headed by engineering professor Yotaro Hatamura, agreed with Tokyo Electric’s findings that cooling and backup power were incapacitated by the tsunami rather than the earthquake. Hatamura criticized Japan’s Nuclear Industrial and Safety Agency in his interim report, yet fell short of assigning blame to individuals.

About 160,000 people were forced to flee radiation and areas around the plant may be uninhabitable for decades, the government has said.

Kurokawa’s inquiry may also throw light on other issues left alone by Hatamura, including whether Tepco asked the government for permission to abandon the plant north of Tokyo at the height of the disaster.

The panel yesterday revealed a flaw in response to the Fukushima disaster by the government, when they were questioning officials who were summoned to the meeting.

Slow SPEEDI

Itaru Watanabe, an official at the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, said data produced by the system for projecting the spread of radiation, called SPEEDI, was provided to the U.S. before the Japanese public.

The data was disclosed to get the assistance of the U.S military for the relief effort on March 14, Watanabe said. The Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan first released results of the SPEEDI projections on March 23, according to the ministry’s presentation materials. The data release for the public “was delayed while it was being considered at the government’s disaster response headquarters,” Watanabe told the panel.

The ministry officials then started explaining differences in definitions of words, saying the ministry didn’t “release” the data to the U.S. but “communicated” on the matter with the U.S.

“I want you to stop these word games” as bureaucratic definitions don’t matter to the public, Shuya Nomura, a lawyer and a professor at Chuo University Law School, told the officials.

The 10 member-committee will have the next public meeting on Jan. 30, which may produce further confrontations with government and Tepco officials. The Hatamura committee hearings were closed to the public to encourage open discourse, Hatamura said yesterday.

Insult to Science

The parliamentary panel also includes some of the most vocal critics of the government and Tokyo Electric before and after the March 11 accident. They include seismologist Katsuhiko Ishibashi, who in 2007 warned of a catastrophic disaster at a nuclear plant similar to that which unfolded at Fukushima, and Mitsuhiko Tanaka, a former atomic equipment engineer and now an anti-nuclear activist.

Ishibashi yesterday clashed with Tokyo Electric Executive Vice President Masao Yamazaki, who told the panel the utility didn’t inform the public it had predicted before March 11 a tsunami may swamp the plant because the projection wasn’t based on scientific evidence.

“That’s an insult to science,” Ishibashi told Yamazaki.