By Linda Sieg
TOKYO (Reuters) - Who's running the show as Japan grapples with its worst crisis since the end of World War Two?
Concerns are growing over an apparent leadership vacuum as Japan fights to prevent catastrophe at a crippled nuclear plant and recover from the deadly earthquake and tsunami that has devastated the country's northeast.
Engineers have been battling to stabilize the Fukushima nuclear complex since it was damaged by the massive March 11 quake and tsunami, but operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) has conceded it faces a prolonged and risky operation to avert a disastrous meltdown at the plant, 240 km (150 miles) from Tokyo.
"This nuclear accident needs to be dealt with as a national security issue, not just a problem for TEPCO, and solved as soon as possible," said Toshiro Muto, a former Bank of Japan deputy governor who is now chairman of the Daiwa Institute of Research.
Underscoring public angst, a Kyodo news agency poll released on Sunday showed nearly 60 percent of respondents disapproved of the government's handling of the nuclear crisis and almost two-thirds felt Prime Minister Naoto Kan was not exercising leadership.
"It is quite clear that the vested interests are too entrenched and the characters involved are too weak to take decisive actions and responsibility in the sense of forward-looking, pragmatic action," said Jesper Koll, director of equity research at JP Morgan Securities.
He said Japan should turn to nuclear experts from around the world to help them stabilize a situation that, if anything, appears to be getting worse.
French nuclear reactor maker Areva SA later confirmed it had received a request from Japan for help to deal with the crisis.
A Kyodo news agency report also said operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) had sought help from another French firm, Electricite de France SA.
Frustration is also growing among those who have fled their homes near the plant. The government has ordered those within a 20 km (12.4 mile) radius to leave and is encouraging those living in a 20-30 km ring to do the same.
"The scary thing is the radiation," said Mitsuharu Watanobe, a retired high school teacher who had to leave his home about 25 km from the damaged complex. "There is a gap between what the newspapers write and what the government is saying. I want the government to tell the truth more."
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano has received praise for his performance as top government spokesman, keeping the public up to date on the crisis in twice-daily news conferences.
But few think the 46-year-old lawmaker is running the show.
And the information he can share is only as reliable as what he is told by TEPCO and regulators, whose comments are often conflicting and confusing.
On Monday, Edano berated TEPCO for announcing what turned out to be mistaken radiation readings, calling the error "absolutely unforgiveable."
Asked later if the pressure vessel at one of the reactors was damaged, he referred the query to the nuclear safety agency.
Analysts said the government seemed to be leaving TEPCO, which has had a rocky past of suspected false reports, too much in control and that coordination among the government, regulators and the firm was messy.
Kan, for his part, has given three news conference since the disaster struck but has otherwise mostly stayed out of public view. He has not yet visited the tsunami-hit northeast, although media said he now plans to do so on April 2.
The prime minister has come under fire for flying over the nuclear complex a day after the tsunami, although Edano denied reports that the flight delayed steps to cope with the accident.
In a sign the government was feeling overwhelmed, Kan on Saturday appointed Sumio Mabuchi, an ex-transport minister, as a special advisor on the nuclear crisis.
That followed the appointment of his former No.2 minister, Yoshito Sengoku, as a deputy to Edano to beef up relief and reconstruction efforts. The quake and tsunami have left more than 27,000 dead or missing and one quarter of a million people living in shelters in a stricken swath of northeastern Japan.
Mabuchi and Sengoku lost their cabinet posts in January after being censured by the opposition-controlled upper house of parliament for their handling of a territorial row with China.
"There is no one looking at things overall," said Hirotaka Futatsuki, an independent political analyst. "Things are proceeding piecemeal and Kan is not exercising general control."
(Additional reporting by David Dolan, Chisa Fujioka, Leika Kihara and Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by John Chalmers)