New probe vows to cut deeper in Japan nuke crisis

AP News
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Posted: Jan 16, 2012 1:09 PM
New probe vows to cut deeper in Japan nuke crisis

A newly formed investigative panel on Japan's nuclear disaster will use its subpoena powers wisely and cut deeper into the accident than the government's probe, the leader of the independent commission said Monday.

The panel appointed by parliament last month has gained attention here because its 10 members include outspoken critics of Japan's nuclear policy who long ago questioned the seismic risks to the country's 54 nuclear reactors.

It is expected to examine the extent to which the 9.0-magnitude earthquake contributed to the crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant, as well as the ensuing tsunami and radiation alert system. Interim reports by the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co. focused on the tsunami and deny the quake itself caused damage that led to fires, reactor meltdowns and radiation leaks from the plant.

"We will get to the bottom of the case and compile a proposal for the future as we strive to live up to the people's expectations," panel chairman Kiyoshi Kurokawa told reporters after the commission had its first full open meeting. "We will seek how we can be different from the government panel."

During the meeting, a government official who was summoned to provide overview of the ministry's accident response revealed that Japan had provided crucial radiation leakage data to the U.S. on March 14, nearly 10 days before disclosing them to its own people.

Top government officials have come under fire for failing to use data produced by the radiation warning system, known as SPEEDI, for evacuation when the reactors were in critical condition. They said they couldn't use them due to the lack of accurate data. The disclosure could renew criticism over the government bungling of the evacuation.

But Itaru Watanabe, an Education Ministry official in charge of radiation monitoring, told the panel that the SPEEDI data were given to the U.S. military via Japan's Foreign Ministry "for use in their relief effort."

The panel is the first bipartisan investigative panel appointed by parliament in its modern political history, said Kurokawa, an expert of internal medicine and a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.

It is also the first that can request that parliament subpoena witnesses and documents, although the lack of a penalty for objectors raises questions on its effectiveness. The panel will submit its findings to parliament around June for action to be taken.

The panel includes legal, nuclear and medical experts. Seismologist Katsuhiko Ishibashi has long warned of tsunami risks in the earthquake-prone country where all 54 nuclear reactors are built on the coastline. Engineer Mitsuhiko Tanaka designed nuclear reactors at Babcock-Hitachi K.K. and has suggested the March quake damaged the Fukushima reactors before the tsunami.

The separate government-appointed panel released preliminary findings last month and found plenty to criticize. It said management of the crisis was marred by erroneous assumptions about equipment, delayed disclosure of radiation leaks and other problems.

The government panel had no subpoena power and the more than 400 witnesses it interviewed were allowed to stay anonymous. Kurokawa said he might seek those transcripts to avoid overlaps.

He said the panel has not decided whether to try to question former Prime Minister Naoto Kan and other top officials responsible for the initial crisis response in public. Kan resigned in August amid widespread criticism of his handling of the nuclear and tsunami disasters and recovery efforts.

(This version CORRECTS Corrects spelling of 'subpoena" in first paragraph. Updates with new detail about radiation data disclosure.)