The Japan Times continues to piece together the March 2011 nuclear catastrophe based on recently released transcripts, including the accounts of Tepco management and workers at the Fukushima site during the early stages of the disaster. For more articles based on the transcripts, view an earlier blog post HERE.
Updated Oct. 1, 2014:
Posted Sept. 26, 2014:
Helplessness as reactor 2 lost cooling
” While reactors 1 and 3 at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear complex suffered core meltdowns, the cooling system for reactor 2 continued to work for three days despite the loss of power following the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011.
The fact that the reactor 2 core isolation cooling system lasted much longer than expected was a “blessed relief,” Fukushima No. 1 chief Masao Yoshida would later say. If it hadn’t been for that, all three units could have spun out of control simultaneously.
Reactor 2′s cooling system finally stopped functioning at 1:25 p.m. on March 14. With no electricity to reactivate it, workers had to depressurize the reactor pressure vessel housing the nuclear fuel so that firetrucks could pump in seawater.
Using car batteries to manipulate valves and release steam from the vessel, the depressurization process finally started at 6:02 p.m. About 20 minutes later, however, the central control room for reactors 1 and 2 reported that the water level had drained to 3.7 meters below the top of the nuclear fuel in reactor 2, leaving it fully exposed. There was also no sign the seawater was entering the reactor.
Just then, a member of Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s firefighting unit returned to the emergency response office and said the firetrucks that were supposed to be injecting water into the reactor had run out of fuel. Yoshida, 56, had already issued instructions that the trucks be kept refueled on a continuous basis.
“Didn’t I tell you?” Yoshida asked, looking up helplessly from his desk at the center of the emergency response office.
Yoshida would later recall that this felt like a “turning point,” beyond which “we had run out of all options and I thought I might really die.”
With no time to lose, the firefighting team immediately rushed back to the firetrucks, having to carry the fuel containers themselves because the tanker had a flat tire after driving over rubble scattered by the hydrogen explosion that had ripped through the reactor 3 building earlier that day.
In the emergency response office, Toshiko Kogusuri, 55, of Tepco’s management team, had been secretly ordered by the head of the team to secure as many buses at the plant as possible. Kogusuri felt Yoshida was starting to consider an evacuation. She asked officials of partner companies in the office building to lend their buses, saying she needed them for on-site transportation of workers.
That was a lie, but the companies did not ask questions and agreed to cooperate.
Just before 8 p.m., about 700 Tepco employees and 150 other workers from other companies, including plant manufacturers and Tepco-affiliated firms, were inside the building. More than 90 minutes had passed since the firetrucks had stopped injecting water into the reactor.
Yoshida felt he should no longer keep contract workers, who had worked day and night from the beginning of the crisis on March 11, on-site.
Many workers were sitting in a corridor on the second floor and on the stairs of the office building. Yoshida went up to them and said: “Thank you for dealing with the situation until now. It is OK to go home. Please evacuate carefully as roads on the way may have caved in.”
He spoke in such a calm tone that the workers did not realize the gravity of the situation.
The contract workers all departed, some in their cars, by roughly 8:30 p.m., leaving only Tepco employees at the plant. By that time, Kogusuri had managed to secure six buses. Yoshida then asked the head of Tepco’s management team whether there was any place people could evacuate to.
Tepco’s local thermal power station and the Fukushima No. 2 nuclear plant were nominated. The team head told Yoshida that the No. 2 plant was ready, having prepared a facility for the injured and a gymnasium to house the others.
At about 8 p.m., the injection of seawater into reactor 2 started after the firetrucks had been refueled, to the relief of the emergency response office. Even so, the situation remained tense because radioactive steam still had to be vented from the reactor to prevent the containment vessel from rupturing, which would expose the nuclear fuel to the external environment.
With workers unable to operate the venting valves, the pressure continued to build, to the point that the water injection had to be halted again.
Shiro Hikita, at 56 an experienced leader of one of the equipment restoration teams, felt that the reactor’s containment vessel could break at any time. “If there was a switch somewhere to end this situation, I would go out there to push it. I wouldn’t even mind dying in order to do it,” he thought to himself.
Early on March 15, silence engulfed the emergency response office as the point of no return neared. Yoshida stood up and started staggering around, mumbling to himself, “It’s all over.”
As he returned to his seat, he leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms and closed his eyes.
He was later quoted by aides as saying that he was thinking about what might happen if the reactor 2 containment vessel failed, discharging a catastrophic amount of radioactive materials: Tepco would have to abandon any pretense of controlling the situation inside the No. 1 plant and might even have to abandon the No. 2 facility. People from Fukushima to Tokyo, about 220 km away, might have to evacuate.
He could not think of a way to avoid such a scenario.
Hikita, the equipment team leader, saw Yoshida’s body slide from the chair onto the floor. At first he thought Yoshida had collapsed but then realized he was sitting cross-legged as if meditating. With his eyes closed, Yoshida did not move for several minutes.
Yoshida later said he was calling to mind the faces of his longest-serving colleagues: “There were about 10 or so. I thought those guys might be willing to die with me.”
At that point, the building housing the emergency response office was still the safest place at the plant, but there was the risk of contamination if the reactor 2 containment vessel ruptured.
Yoshida was searching for the right time to allow Tepco employees to leave the plant, except for a skeleton crew to keep watch over the reactors’ condition and to continue the water injection process. But even if all of his crew stayed on-site, there was only so much they could do, Yoshida thought to himself. ”
* * *
Tepco plea to evacuate enraged Kan
” FUKUSHIMA — A senior Tokyo Electric Power Co. official broke down and wept in the prime minister’s office when the utility felt it had exhausted all options to prevent an utter catastrophe at the Fukushima No. 1 plant.
“I’m sorry. We’ve tried many things, but we are in a situation beyond our control,” Susumu Kawamata, 54, head of Tepco’s Nuclear Quality and Safety Management Department, told Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Banri Kaieda in March 2011 before bursting into tears.
A member of the government’s nuclear safety panel who witnessed the scene thought it spelled the end for one of Japan’s biggest companies.
Shortly after 4 a.m. on March 15, Prime Minister Naoto Kan was sitting face to face with Tepco President Masataka Shimizu, telling him that withdrawing workers from the No. 1 plant was not an option. By that stage, the ravaged complex had experienced hydrogen explosions in the buildings housing reactors 1 and 3 and was facing a potential rupture of the reactor 2 containment vessel.
About 8½ hours prior to that meeting, Tepco’s top-level officials had started to consider evacuating employees from the plant. At around 7:30 p.m. on March 14, Tepco Managing Director Akio Komori, who was at an emergency response center set up 5 km from the plant, suggested the idea during a teleconference with officials at the utility’s Tokyo head office.
“If we don’t make a decision at some point, things could get crazy. Please start setting the criteria for evacuation,” Komori, 58, requested.
Tepco Executive Vice President Sakae Muto, 60, ordered his subordinates at the head office to craft an evacuation plan, while Fukushima No. 1 chief Masao Yoshida started to secure enough buses. Procedures to send employees to Tepco’s Fukushima No. 2 nuclear plant were also being decided.
Shimizu, Tepco’s 66-year-old president, phoned Kaieda, who had been placed in charge of dealing with the unfolding disaster, and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, 46, repeatedly to seek approval for the “evacuation” of workers.
But Shimizu did not communicate clearly that Tepco would maintain a minimum core of employees to monitor the situation and continue to oversee water injection into the three reactors that had suffered core meltdowns.
Kaieda, 62, said he thought Tepco was seeking approval for a “complete withdrawal” from the plant and turned down Shimizu’s request. But at 3 a.m. on March 15, as the condition of reactor 2 worsened, Kaieda decided to ask Kan, 64, to make a decision. He woke up Kan and briefed him on the situation.
“If people withdraw, the eastern part of Japan will be destroyed,” Kan replied, and immediately summoned Shimizu to his office. As soon as Shimizu set foot inside the reception room, Kan lashed into him, saying, “I heard that you are thinking about a withdrawal, but that’s impossible.”
The Tepco president’s response — “we do not have in mind such a thing as withdrawal” — was stunning to Haruki Madarame, 62, the head of the government’s nuclear safety panel who was present for the talks. Madarame later recalled wondering, “What happened to all those talks” about getting the Tepco workers out?
While officials in the prime minister’s office had misunderstood Tepco’s intentions, Shimizu was also at fault for a lack of clarity in his statements.
Kan then told Shimizu he would launch a joint accident response task force. Based in Tepco’s head office, the unprecedented task force saw the government and Tepco jointly deal with the escalating crisis.
Kan announced he was leaving for Tepco’s head office right away, but Shimizu pleaded for two hours to make the necessary preparations. Kan turned and ordered Shimizu to have everything ready within an hour.
The prime minister was still in a white-hot rage when he arrived at Tepco headquarters, unable to hide his distrust and fury toward the company.
“Tepco will go 100 percent bust if it withdraws. You won’t be able to escape even if you try!” he screamed at Tepco Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata, 70, Shimizu and other senior executives before 200 other Tepco employees present. “It doesn’t matter if senior (Tepco) officials in their 60s go to the site and die! I will also go. President, chairman — make up your minds!”
Kan’s diatribe, which continued more than 10 minutes, was relayed live to employees in the emergency response office at the Fukushima No. 1 plant via a teleconference system.
Kan later said he was totally unaware that he had been “yelling at everyone,” explaining, “I might have used strong words to tell them to somehow hang on until the last minute, but I didn’t mean to scold them.”
Kan was one of many senior politicians who, up until that point, were unaware Tepco had set up a teleconference system connecting its head office with Fukushima No. 1.
“I was really surprised,” said Kan, who had learned of the March 12 hydrogen explosion in the reactor 1 building from the TV news rather than Tepco. “There was this huge screen connected to the No. 1 plant. I wondered why information was coming so slowly to the prime minister’s office given the existence of this system.”
Although the joint task force was meant to improve communications, Kan soon realized it was too late to rein in the crisis.
Up at Fukushima No. 1, Takeyuki Inagaki, 47, head of one of the plant’s equipment restoration teams, was among the hundreds of employees in the emergency response office who witnessed Kan’s tirade via the teleconference system. “Even though we were doing our best, we felt like we had been shot in the back with a machine gun,” he later recalled.
Yoshida, 56, the plant chief, was about to answer a call from the Tokyo office when a chilling sound swept through the response office at 6:14 a.m, albeit duller than that of the two previous hydrogens blasts.
Those present felt their blood freeze as they were told by reactor operators that the pressure inside the reactor 2 suppression chamber, connected to the containment vessel, had dropped to zero.
If the chamber did not remain airtight, radioactive steam could pour out into the external environment, leaving no safe place inside the plant or in the surrounding area.
“The suppression chamber might have a gapping hole. A hell of a lot of radioactive substances could come out,” Inagaki informed Yoshida, who instantly decided it was time to evacuate the site. “