Japan Tsunami: One year later

Japan Tsunami: One year later

TOKYO (AP/ ABC 7) – It has been a year since a tsunami struck and devastated parts of Japan.

Both U.S. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden issued statements on Friday marking the one year anniversary.

“As we mark one year since the catastrophic earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disasters in Japan, Michelle and I join all Americans in honoring the memory of the 19,000 victims lost or missing. We continue to be inspired by the Japanese people, who faced unimaginable loss with extraordinary fortitude. Their resilience and determination to rebuild stronger than before is an example for us all,” Obama said in a statement.

“On this day when our thoughts and prayers are with the Japanese people in remembrance of the hardship faced one year ago, let us also celebrate the recovery underway in Japan and pay tribute to Japan’s unflagging dedication to bettering the lives of others throughout the world,” Obama said.

Just four hours after the tsunami swept into the Fukushima nuclear power plant, Japan's leaders knew the reactors could melt but kept their knowledge secret for months, showed reconstructed documents released Friday, almost a year after the disaster.

The statements come on the same day that documents revealed the initial fear about the extent of the Japanese crisis. At one point, then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan even feared the crisis could turn worse than Chernobyl.

The minutes of the government's crisis management meetings from March 11 - the day the earthquake and tsunami struck - until late December were not recorded and had to be reconstructed retroactively.

The documents illustrate the confusion, lack of information, delayed response and miscommunication among government, affected towns and plant officials, as some ministers expressed sense that nobody was in charge when the plant conditions quickly deteriorated.

The minutes quoted an unidentified official explaining that cooling functions of the reactors were kept running only by batteries that would last only eight hours.

"If temperatures in the reactor cores keep rising beyond eight hours, there is a possibility of meltdown," the official said during the first meeting that started about four hours after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami hit the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant March 11, setting off the crisis.

Apparently the government tried to play down the severity of the damage. A spokesman for the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency was replaced after he slipped out a possibility of meltdown during a news conference March 12.

The plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., acknowledged a partial meltdown much later, in May.

Top government spokesman Yukio Edano, who is now trade minister, urged other ministers to watch what they say to the public.

"We must provide information fast, but it must be accurate," Edano said on March 14"We must be clear about all our evaluations and judgment, and announce them only after we reach a decision."

While then-trade minister Banri Kaieda suggested on March 11 that residents within a 10-kilometer (6-mile) radius might have to be evacuated, the government ordered 1,800-plus residents within a 2-kilometer (1.2-mile) zone to leave. Then that expanded to 3 kilometers, then to 10 kilometers within two hours, and finally to 20 kilometers the next day.

Kan said that a 20-kilometer (12 mile) zone would suffice. After seeing a series of explosions and fires at reactor buildings, Kan on March 16 cautioned his Cabinet about a possibility that the Fukushima crisis could be worse than the Chernobyl accident in 1986.

Kan was particularly concerned about a spent fuel pool inside the No. 4 reactor building, which had the largest number of fuel rods and rising water temperature.

"We should worry about the Unit 4 pool, whose temperature has been on the rise," he said, adding that other spent fuel pools at the Fukushima Dai-ichi, as well as four others at the neighboring Dai-ni plant could also deteriorate.

"The amount of radiation that could be released from those reactors could be larger than Chernobyl. We must keep cooling the reactors, whatever it takes. It's going to be a long battle," he said, according to the minutes dated March 16.

It was nearly 10 days before one of his top nuclear advisers produced a worst-case scenario at his request. The March 25 paper, produced by the head of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, warned that a disaster of that scale would require evacuating 30 million people from the greater Tokyo area. Fearing panic, the government kept the report a secret, but The Associated Press obtained it in January

The failure to record the minutes of the government's crisis management meetings properly has added to sharp public criticism about how the nuclear crisis was handled and deepened distrust of politicians and bureaucrats.

The minutes also showed top crisis managers were confused, causing miscommunication that left local officials and residents without crucial information needed for evacuation.

"Who is the leader of the actual operation? I get too many requests and appeals that are incoherent," Yoshihiro Katayama, internal affairs minister at the time, said at a March 15 meeting. "Nobody seems to be in charge."