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Japan feared 'devil's chain reaction' after March 2011 tsunami

February 28, 2012 |  5:54 am

An independent panel's report revealed fears by Japanese officials that Tokyo might have to be evacuated in the nuclear crisis that came after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami
REPORTING FROM SEOUL -- A newly released report vividly portrays the fears confronted by the Japanese government in the first hours and days after the March 11, 2011, tsunami overran a coastal nuclear power plant, including concerns that officials might have to evacuate Tokyo.

The six-month investigation was conducted by a private policy group called the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation. It involved 30 independent researchers, academics, lawyers and journalists.

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Their report, due to be published later this week but released beforehand to several media organizations, disclosed that the government feared "a devil's chain reaction" following the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, while at the same time assuring the public that all was under control.

The team is one of several that are conducting independent reviews of how the Japanese government responded to the crisis. At best, the results so far are mixed.

Then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan's administration as well as nuclear regulators and the Tokyo Electric Power Co., the utility that runs Fukushima, have been chided for what critics say was their haphazard response to the crisis and for failing to keep the public informed of the dangers.

At one point, the Rebuild Japan report claims, advisors to Kan began referring to a worst-case scenario that would not only force the evacuation of tens of millions of Tokyo residents, but could cause widespread environmental damage across Japan. But at the same time Kan's staff continued to assure the Japanese public and the international community that the situation was under control.

When the nuclear plant was struck by a wall of water after an earthquake hit northeastern Japan on the afternoon of March 11, Kan ordered workers to remain at the devastated facility, fearing that thousands of spent fuel rods stored at a damaged reactor would melt and spew radiation following a hydrogen explosion at an adjacent reactor, the report said.

To reach its findings, the review panel interviewed more than 300 government officials and nuclear regulators, including Kan, to piece together a timeline of the tense hours following Japan's worst-ever environmental disaster.

Kan was forced to resign in September after criticism that he had mishandled the crisis. At one point, Kan flew over the damaged plant by helicopter on the morning of March 12 -- a tactic critics say slowed the response to the crisis.

Although the devastation did not prompt evacuation of Tokyo, the Fukushima disaster spewed radioactivity into the atmosphere, leading to the evacuation of about 80,000 residents near the plant, many of whom have yet to return.

Engineers stemmed further damage by pumping seawater into the plant's ailing reactors and spent fuel pools.

As the nation marks the first anniversary of the disaster next month, the plant remains abandoned and officials say it may take decades to conduct a proper cleanup.

During a recent tour, plant officials told reporters that minimizing the release of additional radioactivity is a day-to-day job.

"An earthquake or tsunami like the ones seen a year ago could be a source of trouble for these [cooling]) systems. But we are currently reinforcing the spent fuel pool and making the seawalls higher against tsunamis," Takeshi Takahashi, the plant's manager, told reporters.

Government spokesman Yukio Edano on Tuesday told reporters in Tokyo that he had revealed all information available in the hours after the disaster.

"I shared all information. Back then, I was not in a position where I, as someone who is not an expert, could irresponsibly speak about my own personal impressions and my sense of crisis," he told a news conference. "I conveyed assessments and decisions of the government, government agencies and experts."


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-- John M. Glionna