Government muddle, Tepco missteps cited by Fukushima panel: paper

TOKYO Wed Dec 21, 2011 11:21pm EST

TOKYO (Reuters) - Poor communication at the top level of government may have delayed the evacuation of residents threatened by radiation leaks from the Fukushima nuclear plant, the Yomiuri newspaper reported on Thursday, citing a panel investigating the crisis.

It also accuses plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co of misjudgments soon after the plant was wrecked by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, which knocked out reactor cooling systems and triggered meltdowns, the paper said.

The 12-member panel, set up in May on the initiative of then prime minister Naoto Kan, will release an interim report of its findings on December 26, the Yomiuri said without citing sources.

It said the panel found that poor communication between the government's crisis management centre and decision-making top officials, both housed in the same building, delayed the use of a system that predicts the spread of radioactivity, which could have allowed more adequate evacuation orders to be given.

The government ordered the first evacuation of residents near the plant, 240 km (150 miles) northeast of Tokyo, on the evening of March 11, hours after the quake and tsunami.

The quake struck at 2:46 p.m. on that day, and the first tsunami reached the plant about 40 minutes later.

The evacuation was expanded to a 20 km radius of the complex from 10 km next day.

The panel found Tepco staff did not have a full grasp of backup cooling systems, which delayed its response, the paper said.

NOT THE ONLY ONE

The government panel, headed by Yotaro Hatamura, an engineering professor at Tokyo University specializing in the study of things going wrong, includes seismologists, former diplomats and judges.

It is not the only body investigating responses to the March disaster.

Dissatisfied with the panel's perceived lack of muscle -- it has not yet summoned Kan or other top officials for questioning -- lawmakers formed a separate panel this month with the authority to summon witnesses to parliamentary sessions.

A third panel financed by private-sector funds is also looking into topics the government panel may have overlooked.

Some have called into question the effectiveness of having a several investigative panels, which include high-profile figures such as Nobel laureates but few nuclear experts.

The Fukushima aftermath is far from over, and it may take many years before engineers have a chance to see what really happened inside the Daiichi plant's damaged reactors.

In a much anticipated move, the government declared last week that reactors at the plant had reached a state of cold shutdown, a milestone in cleanup efforts.

But it said on Wednesday it may take another seven years before the inside of the reactors can be checked due to high levels of radiation and technological constraints.

(Reporting by Shinichi Saoshiro; Editing by Michael Watson)