TOKYO The former president of Fukushima plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co denied on Friday that he had ever considered pulling out all of the plant's workers as they battled the worst atomic disaster since Chernobyl.
Masataka Shimizu had been accused by then prime minister Naoto Kan and others of planning to abandon the tsunami-stricken plant in March 2011, as reactors melted down and the situation risked spinning out of control, threatening Tokyo itself.
"I was not saying that we would withdraw everyone," Shimizu told a high-profile investigative panel appointed by parliament. "The basic premise was that we would leave a number of people."
When pressed, however, Shimizu - whose frequent comments that he could not recall certain conversations prompted a rebuke from the panel chairman - said he had never clearly stated to government officials that some staff would remain.
Shimizu, 67, quickly became a target of public outrage after three Fukushima reactors melted down, spewing radiation and forcing mass evacuations. He was widely criticized for vanishing from public view three days after disaster struck. He was later hospitalized for dizziness and high blood pressure, leaving the utility's chairman to supervise operations during his absence.
The bespectacled Shimizu, who spoke calmly during more than two hours of testimony, apologized once again to the victims of the disaster and to the general public over the disaster.
His testimony came just hours before Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda was to hold a news conference on restarting two idled reactors in western Japan.
All of Japan's 50 reactors have gone offline since the crisis and Tokyo has been trying to win local communities' agreement for the restarts to avoid possible summer power outages. There are, however, persistent public concerns about safety and delays in setting up a new nuclear regulator.
The government is also thrashing out a new energy strategy after scrapping a 2010 plan that would have boosted nuclear power's share of electricity to more than 50 percent by 2030 from around 30 percent before the disaster.
SCORNED BY PUBLIC
Shimizu, who stepped down in June last year as president of the utility, known as Tepco, has been questioned in parliament previously but Friday was the first time he appeared publicly in front of one of the three main probes into the disaster.
He and other Tepco executives had said repeatedly that the scale of the natural disaster was unpredictable, but company documents have shown the utility was well aware of the risk.
Kan, who himself resigned last year after harsh criticism of his crisis response, told the panel last week he had rushed to Tepco headquarters on March 15 to order Shimizu not to withdraw all workers from the plant, which had lost power and cooling capacity after a huge earthquake and the tsunami.
Shimizu, who has been out of public view since he resigned as Tepco president in May 2011 over the disaster, was scorned by victims of the crisis in the days and weeks after the accident.
The governor of Fukushima prefecture, where the stricken plant is located, on two occasions refused to meet him when the president visited to apologize.
But in a sign of the close ties that bind corporate Japan, Shimizu will later this month become an outside board member of Fuji Oil Co., which is owned by AOC Holdings Inc., a firm in which Tepco has an 8.7 percent stake.
Tepco itself, burdened with massive compensation and clean-up costs from the disaster, will be taken over by the government through a 1 trillion yen ($12.6 billion) injection of public funds to be approved at a shareholders' meeting this month.
The eventual cost of the disaster has been estimated at more than $100 billion. Last week, Tepco said the radiation release from Fukushima's meltdowns was more than twice initial estimates.
($1 = 79.5700 Japanese yen)
(Writing by Aaron Sheldrick and Linda Sieg; Additional reporting by Osamu Tsukimori; Editing by Mark Bendeich)