A newly released report vividly portrays the doubts confronted by the Japanese government in the first hours and days after the March 11 tsunami overran a coastal nuclear power plant, and a fear that officials might have to evacuate Tokyo.
The six-month investigation was conducted by a private policy group called the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation and involved 30 independent researchers, academics, lawyers and journalists.
Their report, due to be published later this week but released beforehand to several media organizations, disclosed that the government feared "a devil's chain reaction" following the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, while at the same time assuring the public that all was under control.
The team is one of several that are conducting independent reviews of how the Japanese government responded to the crisis. At best, the results so far are mixed.
The administration of then-prime minister Naoto Kan as well as nuclear regulators and the Tokyo Electric Power Co., the utility that runs Fukushima, have been chided for their haphazard response to the crisis and for failing to keep the public informed of the dangers they faced.
At one point, the Rebuild Japan report claims advisers to Kan began referring to a worst case scenario that would not only force the evacuation of tens of millions of Tokyo residents, but worse, could cause widespread environmental damage across Japan. But Kan's staff continued to assure the Japanese public and the international community that the situation was under control.
Kan reportedly ordered workers to remain at the devastated nuclear plant, struck by a wall of water after an earthquake hit northeastern Japan on the afternoon of March 11, fearing that thousands of spent fuel rods stored at a damaged reactor would melt and spew radiation following a hydrogen explosion at an adjacent reactor, the report said.
To reach its findings, the review panel interviewed more than 300 government officials and nuclear regulators -- as well as Kan himself.
Kan was forced to resign in September under hard criticism that he bungled the handling of the crisis.
Meanwhile, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Tuesday lumber, boats and other debris ripped from Japanese coastal towns by the tsunamis last year have spread across some 3,000 miles of the North Pacific, where they could wash ashore on remote islands north of Hawaii this winter.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.