‘Yoshida’s Dilemma: One Man’s Struggle to Avert Nuclear Catastrophe’: But for him, Fukushima could have been much worse — The Japan Times

” Disaster response, even at its most heroic, can fall to people who would rather be somewhere else.

So it was for Masao Yoshida, who, while helming the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant during the disaster in 2011, gave the groan, “Why does this happen on my shift?”

But in some ways Yoshida, an industry veteran of 32 years, was the right man to handle the crisis. His leadership during those days on the edge, at times in defiance of orders from the top of the utility that employed him, is at the center of Rob Gilhooly’s new book “Yoshida’s Dilemma: One Man’s Struggle to Avert Nuclear Catastrophe.”

Gilhooly writes from the eye of the storm, putting the reader in the plant’s control room with almost claustrophobic immediacy. One of his challenges was to render the emergency in real-time. How much can prose, moving forward in measured steps, convey a lethal technology unraveling in extremis? How do you convey the breakdown of machinery without getting mired in technical detail?

“It was difficult,” says Gilhooly, who spent almost four years researching and writing the book. “What struck me about the plant workers — it sounded like complete chaos. My decision was not to make it sound orderly. I wanted it to appear chaotic, without the writing becoming chaotic itself. I tore my hair out over the technical details, because I wanted the book to be readable.”

In the end, the book is a cumulative experience — an intense ride that rewards endurance. Gilhooly weaves in the history of nuclear energy in Japan, interviews with experts and re-created conversations among the plant workers.

“Yoshida was a straight talker from Osaka — a larger-than-life personality,” says Gilhooly, who interviewed the superintendent off the record. “He was different from the other superintendents, more prepared to stick his neck out. He was sharper, more bloody-minded. When tipping his hat to authority, he may have done so with a quietly raised middle finger.”

This attitude might have saved lives, when, after a hydrogen blast at the No. 1 plant, Tepco HQ in Tokyo ordered staff to evacuate. Yoshida knew that the executives had little idea of what was actually happening at the plant. Going behind the backs of his superiors, he contacted then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan, insisting that leaving the plant would be reckless. The utility also ordered that seawater not be pumped through the reactor as coolant, since that would render it useless for energy generation in the future. Exposed to life-threatening levels of radiation, Yoshida and his team defied the order, scrambling to cool the overheating reactor with seawater.

The desperate move worked. The team managed to cool the reactor, and later the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, which was authorized by the Diet, concluded in its report that “(Yoshida’s) disregard for corporate instructions was possibly the only reason that the reactor cores didn’t explode.”

In Western media coverage of the Fukushima disaster, much was made of Japanese groupthink. A culturally ingrained obedience and a reluctance to question authority was blamed in part for the disaster. Still, the responses vary, and some staff put safety concerns over company loyalty.

“I didn’t want to editorialize,” says Gilhooly, who writes with a calm, thoughtful voice, avoiding the temptation of melodrama. “But yes, Yoshida — and others — refuted the stereotype that was used to explain parts of the disaster.”

Gilhooly is talking to a Japanese publisher, but thinks a translated version may prove difficult: His sources spoke freely about the events at the plant assuming the interviews wouldn’t be published in Japanese. Still, Gilhooly, who takes a stand in the book against using nuclear energy, hopes to fuel the ongoing debate in his adopted home.

“I just wanted to know the truth,” he says. “There is a discussion that needs to happen about nuclear power — about disaster un-preparedness in Japan. I wanted to contribute to that argument. It’s six years on and already we are airbrushing some things out.”

The book points out the gulf between rural Fukushima and the large cities consuming the energy it produced. Gilhooly talked to Atsufumi Yoshizawa, Yoshida’s deputy at the plant, who recalled the first home leave with his boss, a month after the disaster:

“Tokyo was … as though nothing had happened. They were selling things as usual, women were walking around with high heels and makeup as usual, while we didn’t even have our own clothes (which had been contaminated). I remember thinking, ‘What the hell is this? How can it be so different?’ I realized just how useless it would be to try and explain the situation at the plant to these people, what we had been through and the fear we had faced.”

It is a punch in the gut, then, to read about Yoshida’s death from esophageal cancer at age 58, just two years after his exposure to radiation. It’s one of the many elements of the Fukushima crisis that stirs anger, demanding a change that honors the lessons and sacrifice.

Gilhooly points out that, unlike Yoshida in the stricken plant, Japan has the chance to make positive choices about the future, choices that should be informed by the suffering in Fukushima.

“We should think more about how we use energy,” he concludes. “There are things we can do better, with small changes in lifestyle.” ”

by Nicolas Gattig, The Japan Times

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Fukushima: The First cancers emerge — CounterPunch

” The Japanese government  has made its first admission that a worker at the Fukushima nuclear plant developed cancer as a following decontamination work after the 2011 disaster.

The man worked at the damaged plant for over a year, during which he was exposed to 19.8 millisieverts of radiation, four times the Japanese exposure limit. He is suffering from leukemia.

The former Fukushima manager Masao Yoshida also contracted cancer of the esophagus after the disaster and died in 2013 – but the owner and operator of the nuclear plant, Tepco, refused to accept responsibility, insisting that the cancer developed too quickly.

Three other Fukushima workers have also contracted cancer but have yet to have their cases assessed.

The Fukushima nudear disaster followed the tsunami of 11 March 2011. Three out of four reactors on the site melted down, clouds of deadly radiation were released following a hydrogen explosion, and the nuclear fuel appears to have melted through the steel reactor vessels and sunk into, or through, the concrete foundations.

The tip of an iceberg

But that single ‘official’ cancer case is just the beginning. New scientific research indicates that hundreds more cancers have been and will be contracted in the local population.

A 30-fold excess of thyroid cancer has been detected among over 400,000 young people below the age of 18 from the Fukushima area.

According to the scientists, “The highest incidence rate ratio, using a latency period of 4 years, was observed in the central middle district of the prefecture compared with the Japanese annual incidence.”

In a first screening for thyroid cancer among 298,577 young people four years after the disaster, thyroid cancer occurred 50 times more among those in the most heavily irradiated areas, than in the general population, at a rate of 605 per million examinees.

In a second screening round of 106,068 young people conducted in April 2014 in less irradiated parts of the prefecture, the cancer was 12 times more common than for the main population.

Thyroid cancer is commonly developed as a result of acute exposure to radioactive iodine 131, a product of nuclear fission. Because iodine concentrates in the thyroid gland, thyroid damage including cancer is a characteristic marker of exposure to nuclear fallout.

Exposure to iodine-131 presents a high risk in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear accident owing to its short half life of 8 days, making it intensely radioactive. It is estimated to have made up about 9.1% of the radioactive material released at Fukushima.

There’s many more cases on the way!

The paper’s authors note that the incidence of thyroid cancer is high by comparison with the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 at the same time following exposure – and warn that many more cases are likely to emerge:

“In conclusion, among those ages 18 years and younger in 2011 in Fukushima Prefecture, approximately 30-fold excesses in external comparisons and variability in internal comparisons on thyroid cancer detection were observed in Fukushima Prefecture within as few as 4 years after the Fukushima power plant accident. The result was unlikely to be fully explained by the screening effect.

“In Chernobyl, excesses of thyroid cancer became more remarkable 4 or 5 years after the accident in Belarus and Ukraine, so the observed excess alerts us to prepare for more potential cases within a few years.”

Scientific studies of Chernobyl victims have also found that the risk of developing thyroid cancer has a long, fat tail – in other words, there is no significant fall in risk over time among people exposed to iodine-131.

According the the US’s National Cancer Institute, summarising the findings in 2011,

“The researchers found no evidence, during the study time period, to indicate that the increased cancer risk to those who lived in the area at the time of the accident is decreasing over time.

“However, a separate, previous analysis of atomic bomb survivors and medically irradiated individuals found cancer risk began to decline about 30 years after exposure, but was still elevated 40 years later. The researchers believe that continued follow-up of the participants in the current study will be necessary to determine when an eventual decline in risk is likely to occur.”

Did WHO underestimate the Fukushima radiation release?

The authors of the Fukushima study also suggest that the amount of radiation released may, in fact, have been more that the World Health Organisation’s and other official estimates:

“Furthermore, we could infer a possibility that exposure doses for residents were higher than the official report or the dose estimation by the World Health Organization, because the number of thyroid cancer cases grew faster than predicted in the World Health Organization’s health assessment report.”

Another consideration – which the authors do not enter into – is the effect of the other radioactive species emitted in the accident including 17.5% Caesium-137 and 38.5% Caesium 134. These longer-lived beta-emitters (30 years and two years respectively) present a major long term hazard as the element is closely related to potassium and readily absorbed into biomass and food crops.

Yet another radiation hazard arises from long lived alpha emitters like plutonium 239 (half life 24,100 years) which is hard to detect. Even tiny nano-scale specks of inhaled plutonium entering the lungs and lymphatic system can cause cancer decades after the event by continuously ‘burning’ surrounding tissues and cells. ”

by Oliver Tickell

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Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster — Truthdig book review

The following is a book review by Louise Rubacky for Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster, written by David Lochbaum, Edwin Lyman, Susan Q. Stranahan and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

” In “Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster,” a team of scientists and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist recount what happens when a catastrophe strikes that no one imagines. No one with the clout to prevent it, that is. It’s a tale of entwined worlds that must cooperate intelligently in order to protect the public. The tensions and cross-purposes among them, however, lead to indecision, inaction and increased calamity. In crisis, these worlds—the nuclear energy industry, two powerful governments, and international regulatory commissions—are about as effective as a machine lubed with super glue.

Early and often comes the warning: Hubris Ahead. Words and phrases like prevailing wisdom, low risk, practically unthinkable, unlikely, government assurances, assumptions, confidence, remote possibility and a situation we had never imagined appear throughout; they indicate attitudes about potential dangers, and point to why the earthquake and tsunami had such dire effects on Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant and Japan.

This chronicle, another in the continuing tragedy of the human gamble against nature, is mostly peopled by players who could be said to represent knowledge, fear, power and money. In standing, the first of these comes last. Corporate captains, regulators and leaders charged with public safety cover up or sidestep facts that, if acknowledged and addressed, could imperil their coffers or careers. As in the U.S., there’s a symbiotic and dangerous relationship between government and industry in Japan. The route from the public to the private sector is known here as the revolving door; there, the delicate name for that greasy highway is “amakudari,” translated as “descent from heaven.”

The coastal earthquake that kicked off a trail of destruction and mayhem on March 11, 2011, measured 9.0 on the Richter scale, but was prematurely reported by the government as 7.9, 45 times less energetically powerful. It’s the biggest temblor in Japanese history, but the fifth largest ever recorded, and the authors present other reasons that industry and government should not have feigned surprise:

“Headlines scattered over the decades built a disturbing picture. Reactor owners falsified reports. Regulators failed to scrutinize safety claims. Nuclear boosters dominated safety panels. Rules were buried for years in endless committee reviews. ‘Independent’ experts were financially beholden to the nuclear industry for jobs or research funding. …”

Plenty of warnings were sounded, like those from noted seismologist Katsuhiko Ishibashi who, since 1997, had predicted grim scenarios that a catastrophic earthquake could set in motion. Other experts cautioned that tsunami reinforcements at Fukushima Daiichi were inadequate; they were made safe only up to 20 feet because plant owner Tokyo Electric Power Company determined the danger of a wave above that height was “unrealistic.” In an island nation that generated 30 percent of its energy at nuclear plants and has over 1,000 earthquakes a year, company concerns about sending the wrong message to the public outweighed scientific evidence.

When the tsunami hit Fukushima Daiichi, system failures flowed like lava from an active volcano. For three of their six reactors, the countdown to meltdown began. The earthquake took out plant AC power, and the tsunami drowned backup generators, cables, gauges and multiple critical tools. Internal emergency communications became spotty, as would be expected if those in charge had allowed themselves to imagine that such a destructive earthquake and tsunami could happen.

Within two hours of the 50-foot water wall flooding the plant, all backups for disaster control were kaput. The Fukushima incident was, like many nuclear accidents, “beyond design-basis.” This refers to power stations designed with accident management plans that function up to a certain degree of impact intensity. That threshold was much lower than the 9.0 quake and subsequent tsunami. Despite the risk, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has also allowed U.S. plants to rely on design-basis planning, and for licensees to develop their accident management voluntarily. (Taking plants offline for seismic evaluation and upgrades is expensive: After the 2007 earthquake near the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant, all seven of its reactors underwent work. That cut production by 20 percent; owner TEPCO lost $1.44 billion and its stock fell 30 percent that year.)

Even more difficult to fathom, TEPCO set accident management procedures for station blackouts that would last just 30 minutes and affect only one reactor per site. But no nuclear accident resulting in blackout to date has affected only one reactor. Further, no worker has ever been trained at any nuclear plant for “worst case scenario” responses, because that’s a hot concept, politically speaking. Nor has failure of all backup defenses ever been considered. Consequently, unprepared workers attempted to control beyond-design chaos of a disaster eventually rated level 7, the worst on the 1-7 nuclear accident scale. Oh, and the Fukushima plant blackout lasted 10 days.

Over the next few days after the tsunami, explosions blew out parts of four containment structures, dramatically increasing the potential radiation hazard to workers and the public. Because of the blackout, no one was sure which likely cause was behind each explosion. Desperate and resourceful attempts were made to get water into the structures to cool reactors, many unsuccessful because of debris blocking outside access, inadequate pumping tools and weak jury-rigged power sources. Broken pressure gauges, radiation detectors and measuring tools, on top of scarce information inside and between containment structures, meant everyone was working in perilous best-guess mode.

The complexities were many, and the authors explain known factors contributing to the cascade of dangerous dominoes, often more than once—the timing and dangers of cooling procedures, hydrogen, spent fuel pools, fissile material behavior, venting pros and cons, and more. (Mysteries about specific stages of the accident will never be solved because life-threatening radiation levels at the power plant still prevent forensic investigation.) Incomplete or wrong information from TEPCO and government officials circulated, and multiple versions are reported here, including corrections. Exhaustion and a 13-hour time difference between Washington, D.C., and Japan further muddied communication.

Washington became involved in the disaster quickly for a few reasons: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, from which the president and Congress get information and advice on science, industry and policy matters, is located just outside D.C. Also, about 160,000 American citizens lived in Japan in 2011. But perhaps most worrying were the 35 reactors and 23 containment structures in use at U.S nuclear power plants that were the same type as the ones failing at Fukushima Daiichi. The Mark 1 reactors and containment structures were all designed and manufactured by General Electric. A rather large question loomed: Could this happen in the U.S.?

The interactions and impacts of the international regulatory agencies are as complicated as the technical parts of the story. Few in this arena come off as even halfway responsible; many appear cowed by industry expectations. Their appeasing, obfuscating ways preceded the accident and have persisted since. (Arguments continue about how many people’s health was really destroyed from the radiation.) Still, it comes as a big WOW when the contents of an NRC conference report, and its date, are revealed in Chapter 10.

“Now, as the [international] conference was winding down, a few dozen people had gathered to hear a panel discuss the latest results of an NRC research project entitled State-of-the-Art Reactor Consequence Analyses, or SOARCA, as it was known in the NRC’s acronym-rich environment. The takeaway message from the panel: even if a severe nuclear power plant accident were to happen—say an extended station blackout at a Mark 1 boiling water reactor—it wouldn’t be all that bad.

The date was March 10, 2011.”

That was the day before the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami.

In fact, for decades, American NRC regulators did computer simulations that showed the GE Mark 1 reactor containment structures fail in station blackouts. These studies were not shared with Japan. The authors of “Fukushima” speculate that if they had been shared, things might have turned out differently because Japan followed the U.S. regulators’ leads more closely after the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania in 1979. But the U.S. wasn’t pushing correctives in response to its own studies, and next-generation containment structures were not deemed much better under blackout conditions.

One week into the horror show, TEPCO upgraded the accident from level 4 to level 5, in a statement blaming the crisis on “the marvels of nature,” knowing that was just partly true. And the efforts of then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan and other officials to neutralize bad news to keep the public from freaking out were as constant as they were appalling. They had long overstated the safety of nuclear energy production, but with unknown amounts of radiation escaping after the accident, one might imagine that honesty and actual leadership would kick in. Guess again. Even after inadequate evacuations began, many citizens did not know why they were being evacuated, because they were not told.

In contrast to the example set by the establishment, endangered plant engineers and staff tried everything in their minimal powers to prevent the worst potential outcomes. Many worked without sleep for days at a time, and no essential employees opted to leave to save themselves. (There’s a parallel here to soldiers taking all the risk in wars started by government heads who stay out of harm’s way.) Early in the crisis, Kan ordered the shift supervisor to stop injecting seawater into the reactor at Unit 1, even though TEPCO management had already agreed that, due to the incapacity of freshwater pumping tools, cooling with seawater was unavoidable. (Seawater is highly corrosive, and Kan knew the action could signal how bad things really were.) Masao Yoshida, the supervisor, gave the monitored order but secretly told his crew to ignore it. The writers give these dedicated people due props for their tenacity and bravery, and the rebellious incident underscores the level of foolishness added to the obstacles.

The layering of facts, figures and physics makes the “Fukushima” reading experience a bit weedy, but a lot of information is needed to understand and follow events. The authors, who frequently jump back and forth in time, are challenged in presenting the timeline of the accident-induced traumas and management process clearly. The proliferation of acronyms throughout the book tested my memory, too, but some, like IDCOR, RASCAL, SARRY, and SPEEDI, add irony to a dry text.

And among the packed record that is often flattened with cliches are gems of history-as-satire, starring a cast of dunces with degrees. Two Swiftian examples: In 2005, a Japanese court ruled that the fault line near the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant did not exist, after a 25-year fight about location safety. Two years later, a 6.8 earthquake struck 10 miles offshore from the station. And during the Fukushima crisis, when it seemed clear that the radiation levels at the plant were reaching the allowable limits, the government considered raising the “safe” exposure level. With enough money on the line, any absurdity goes.

Despite its challenges, “Fukushima” makes a fine reference volume for understanding nuclear power production and its still-critical dangers. It’s also a mosaic of determined reconstruction, and serves as a play-by-play guide to What Not to Believe during an industrial accident. As the prescient journalist I.F. Stone warned for decades about governments: They all lie. And so it goes for most large corporations, whose PR shields give “spinning”—formerly known as lying—a shiny sophistication. Eight days into the crisis, Chuck Casto, the NRC rep in Japan working on no sleep and with little cooperation, said, “I’m just trying to figure out who the power player is over here.” This too is a crux of the story, and others about high-stakes arenas.

So life lessons abound here, but such lessons have been taught before by tragedies involving profit-driven risk taking: the Bhopal gas leak disaster in India in 1984, the Massey Energy coal mine collapse in West Virginia in 2010 and the Deepwater Horizon explosion/spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, to name just a few. As I wound my way through this long saga about a short period in nuclear history, a refrigerator magnet from years ago kept coming to mind. Playing on a key line from the movie “The Sixth Sense,” it reads: “I see dumb people,” and provides an easy laugh. It’s unlikely that the educated people who helped make the Fukushima catastrophe worse are actually stupid, though they surely lack wisdom.

But if the difference in behavior and results is indiscernible, does it matter? ”

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Panel finds Asahi report on Fukushima plant as having ‘major errors’ — Mainichi

” TOKYO (Kyodo) — A panel appointed by The Asahi Shimbun to review its reporting concluded on Wednesday that the newspaper’s May scoop on testimony by the late chief of the disaster-hit Fukushima nuclear plant contained “major errors,” endorsing the daily’s retraction of the report earlier.

The major Japanese daily issued an apology to workers of Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Fukushima Prefecture and other people, and said it will take disciplinary action against those responsible for the report within this month.

Based on the then classified testimony by Masao Yoshida, who was heading the plant when the six-reactor facility was crippled by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, the newspaper reported in a May 20 scoop that 90 percent of workers had withdrawn from the damaged plant by violating his order for them to stay put.

But on Sept. 11, the newspaper retracted the report after concluding that it misinterpreted the plant chief’s testimony, which had been compiled for a government panel examining the Fukushima meltdowns, noting that the testimony showed Yoshida had not seen the workers’ action as a violation of his order.

The daily’s Press and Human Rights Committee, consisting of a university professor, a former Supreme Court justice and a former executive of public broadcaster NHK, said “no fact existed to make the evaluation that workers were ‘violating plant manager order'” and that no news gathering was pursued to corroborate such an evaluation.

The panel criticized the report for lacking Yoshida’s comment in the same testimony that he had felt after all that the workers were right about deciding to move to another nuclear power plant nearby that had escaped severe damage.

The omission amounted to a failure on the part of the newspaper, whose mission is to provide readers with fair and accurate information, it said.

The panel also said the report contained a conjecture by the writer who wrote it, and that only two reporters had read the testimony just before the report was published.

As to the newspaper’s failure to respond to growing criticism and questions raised about the report in the following weeks and months, the panel said a “lack of a sense of crisis” led to no proper or immediate response and resulted in a loss of trust in the newspaper.

Tadakazu Kimura, president of The Asahi Shimbun, suggested at a press conference in September that he would resign from the post to take responsibility for the scandal. He has since indicated that he would announce his resignation in the middle of this month.

Yoshida’s 400-page testimony was reflected in the final panel report compiled in July 2012 along with testimonies from more than 770 others. Yoshida died of esophageal cancer in July 2013 at age 58. ”

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Video conferences from March 12 and 13, 2011 — Television Asahi

This video shows conferences from March 12 and 13, 2011, between former plant manager Masao Yoshida at Fukushima Daiichi, the TEPCO main office, the Fukushima off-site center, Fukushima Daini and the Kashiwazaki Kariwa plant. Tokyo Electric released this footage on Friday, May 10, 2012, over a year after the nuclear meltdowns. They released only six hours of 49 hours of recordings on March 12 and 13. These conversations between TEPCO executives and Fukushima Daiichi operators show the level of panic, miscommunication, fear and desperation expressed by those trying to manage the quickly escalating situation.

Watch video – Click the CC icon for English subtitles.

For related posts that include March 2011 transcripts, see 19/19/14 and 10/1/14.

Updated 10/1/14: Continuing to piece together March 2011 — The Japan Times

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:

1) As radiation levels soared at Fukushima No. 1, plant chief Yoshida rescinded evacuation order

2) Tears, hopeful promises of reunion as Tepco workers evacuated Fukushima No. 1

3) Four days later: ‘Fukushima 50′ recount start of nuclear crisis

Posted Sept. 26, 2014:

Helplessness as reactor 2 lost cooling

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” 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

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” 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. “