In the darkest moments of last year's nuclear accident, Japanese leaders did not know the actual extent of damage at the plant and secretly considered the possibility of evacuating Tokyo, even as they tried to play down the risks, an independent investigation into the accident disclosed on Monday.
The investigation by the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, a new private policy organisation, offers one of the most vivid accounts of how Japan teetered on the edge of an even larger nuclear crisis than the one that engulfed the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. A team of 30 university professors, lawyers and journalists spent more than six months on the inquiry into Japan's response to the triple meltdown at the plant, which followed a earthquake and tsunami on March 11 that shut down the plant's cooling systems.
The team interviewed more than 300 people, including top nuclear regulators and government officials, during the crisis. They were granted extraordinary access, in part because of a strong public demand for greater accountability and because the group's founder, Yoichi Funabashi, a former editor of the daily newspaper Asahi Shimbun, is one of Japan's most respected public intellectuals.
An advance copy of the report describes how Japan's response was hindered by a debilitating breakdown in trust between the major actors: PM Naoto Kan; the Tokyo headquarters of the plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power(Tepco); and the manager at the stricken plant. The conflicts produced confused flows of sometimes contradictory information in the early days of the crisis, the report said.
It describes frantic phone calls by the manager, Masao Yoshida, to top officials in the Kan government arguing that he could get the plant under control if he could keep his staff in place, while at the same time ignoring orders from Tepco's headquarters not to use sea water to cool the reactors.
By contrast, Funabashi said in an interview, Tepco's president Masataka Shimizu, was calling the PM's office saying the company should evacuate all of its staff, a step that could have been catastrophic.
The 400-page report, due to be released later this week, also describes a darkening mood at the PM's residence as a series of hydrogen explosions rocked the plant on March 14 and 15. It says Kan and other officials began discussing a worst-case outcome if workers at the plant were evacuated. This would have allowed the plant to spiral out of control, releasing even larger amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere and in turn force the evacuation of other nearby nuclear plants.
The report quotes the chief cabinet secretary at the time, Yukio Edano, as having warned that such a "demonic chain reaction" of plant meltdowns could result in the evacuation of Tokyo, 150 miles to the south.