TOKYO (Reuters) - A government-appointed inquiry into Japan's Fukushima nuclear crisis raised doubts on Monday about whether other atomic plants were prepared for massive disasters, and delivered a damning assessment of regulators and the station's operator.
The report, the second this month about the disaster, could be seized upon by Japan's increasingly vociferous anti-nuclear movement after the restart of two reactors, and as the government readies a new energy policy due out next month.
The panel suggested post-Fukushima safety steps taken at other nuclear plants may not be enough to cope with a big, complex catastrophe caused by both human error and natural causes in a "disaster-prone nation" like Japan, which suffers from earthquakes, tsunami, floods and volcanoes.
"We understand that immediate safety measures are being further detailed and will materialize in the future. But we strongly urge the people concerned to make continued efforts to take really effective steps," said the panel, chaired by University of Tokyo engineering professor Yotaro Hatamura.
Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco), the operator of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, and regulators failed to plan for a massive natural disaster, the panel said, blaming them for being lulled by the same "safety myth" criticized by a parliament-appointed team of experts earlier this month.
But the inquiry stopped short of accusing the regulators and Tepco of collusion, a charge included in a strongly-worded report by the parliamentary panel earlier in July.
"The Fukushima crisis occurred because people didn't take the impact of natural disasters so seriously," Hatamura told a news conference.
"Even though there were new findings (about the risk of a tsunami), Tepco couldn't see it because people are blind to what they don't want to see."
Commenting on the report, Environment Minister Goshi Hosono told public broadcaster NHK he agreed that regulators and the nuclear industry itself needed to change their mindsets.
"Until now (the nuclear industry) has been an industry promoting nuclear power. That is no longer acceptable. From now on what is vital is safety and preservation of the environment, and I would like the industry to be aware of that," Hosono said.
"The government, standing apart from the industry, must strictly check whether that is actually being done," he said, adding a new regulatory body to be set up in September must be not only independent but transparent to regain public trust.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's decision to restart Kansai Electric Power Co's two reactors this month to avoid a potential blackout has energized the country's growing anti-nuclear movement. More than 100,000 people took to the streets in Tokyo a week ago and ever-bigger protests are being staged weekly outside the premier's office.
Hosono said the protesters' voices were reaching the prime minister and lawmakers.
But he added it was necessary to distinguish between a long-term energy strategy and the issue of securing electricity supply in the short term. "Electricity is something that concerns the people's lives, and is linked to the economy and industry and indeed, the very existence of the nation," he said.
All of Japan's 50 reactors were shut down for safety checks after the disaster. Critics say the two restarted reactors do not meet all the government's safety criteria announced this April.
The panel called on the government to immediately take additional steps, including ensuring that off-site nuclear accident management centers are protected against the kind of massive radiation leaks that made the one at Fukushima useless.
The Fukushima Daiichi plant, 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo, was hit on March 11 last year by an earthquake and tsunami that knocked out power supply and swamped its backup power and cooling systems, resulting in meltdowns of three of its six reactors. About 150,000 people were forced to flee as radioactive materials spewed, some never to return.
The government-appointed panel said there was no proof the earthquake was a key factor in the disaster but added that some impact could not be ruled out, contradicting Tepco's own findings, which put the blame solely on the tsunami.
The panel called on Tepco to review data presented to the panel because it believes it contains errors, echoing other criticism of the operator, and urged the utility to carry out further investigations into the causes of the disaster.
The report also blamed Japan's nuclear regulators for not paying sufficient heed to improvements in nuclear safety standards recommended by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Hatamura said that due to time restrictions, his panel was unable to address the concerns of residents, and the international community, who questioned whether the damaged reactors and the pool of used nuclear fuel at Fukushima's No.4 reactor could withstand another earthquake.
"I now understand what people are worried the most about is the vulnerability of the No.4 spent fuel pool. I wish we had started an investigation on it much earlier," Hatamura said.
Additional reporting by Linda Sieg; Editing by Aaron Sheldrick, Daniel Magnowski, Ed Lane and Pravin Char