Flip-flopping government shoots self in foot

Contradictory statements about emergency efforts to cool the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant's No. 1 reactor have damaged the government's credibility as a source of information, and will do nothing to improve Prime Minister Naoto Kan's standing in the international community.

Last Saturday, the government said the injection of seawater into the No. 1 reactor had been temporarily halted on March 12, but altered its account Thursday after Tokyo Electric Power Co. said the seawater injection had continued uninterrupted.

This reversal follows a correction issued by the government Sunday that amended a quote it had attributed to Haruki Madarame, chairman of the Nuclear Safety Commission.

"We haven't been conscientious about checking where information has come from," Goshi Hosono, an adviser to Kan, said Thursday evening at a press conference held by the Government-TEPCO Integrated Response Office.

Hosono admitted the government had based its account on information supplied by TEPCO officials, and that the government had entrusted TEPCO Fellow Ichiro Takekuro, a former vice president of the firm, to gather that information.

Last Saturday, Hosono said Madarame, when told of a plan to inject seawater into the reactor, had said, "There is a danger of re-criticality." Based on that warning, the government began discussing preventive steps, Hosono said.

In the correction, the government said Madarame's actual words were, "The possibility of re-criticality is not zero."

The correction was issued because Madarame had objected to the government's initial statement.

On Thursday, TEPCO corrected a fundamental element of a previous government statement.

The utility said it had continued injecting seawater into the reactor without any stoppage. The government's account had it that TEPCO suspended the operation after learning the Prime Minister's Office was concerned about potential risks.

The government's failure to properly investigate the facts and ensure proper communication--necessities in an emergency situation--have damaged public confidence in it.

Dissatisfaction with TEPCO's response to the nuclear crisis triggered by the March 11 disaster prompted Kan to set up the Government-TEPCO Integrated Response Office on March 15.

However, two months later, communication within the integrated office is neither efficient nor accurate, as the government's flip-flopping over the seawater injection issues proves.

TEPCO's culture is to blame for the firm placing more importance on the concerns of the Prime Minister's Office than on scientific merit, but the incident nevertheless highlights the problematic nature of political initiatives.

The government has been shown to still be lacking in terms of crisis management.

At a press conference on Thursday evening, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano expressed displeasure with TEPCO's performance.

"If the facts aren't accurately reported, we'll struggle to respond to the situation, and the public will become doubtful and suspicious," he said.

However, Edano also said the government does not think TEPCO has intentionally concealed information. "At the very least, there's no reason for the firm to conceal information," he said.

Such faith in TEPCO is apparently a reflection of the attitude of Kan, who, according to officials close to him, places complete confidence in Masao Yoshida, chief of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

Some government officials point out that Yoshida's decision to continue injecting seawater into the reactor, despite the apparent concerns of the Prime Minister's Office, was proven to be the better choice.

But because of the erroneous initial statement, from Monday to Wednesday discussions by the House of Representatives' special committee on post-disaster reconstruction were based on the incorrect assumption that the seawater injection had been temporarily suspended.

Later this month, the government will establish a committee to investigate the nuclear crisis, but some government officials have pointed out that the credibility of the committee's findings could also be seen as questionable.

From an international perspective, the government's reversal was terribly timed.

In a speech at the opening of the Group of Eight summit meeting in Deauville, France, Kan was going to explain developments regarding the nuclear crisis, and seek support for Japan's efforts to bring the situation under control.

The International Atomic Energy Agency team is currently in Japan to investigate the accidents at the Fukushima plant.

Repeated revisions to its official statements could make existing suspicion about the government's response grow even deeper in the international community.