EARLY HOURS OF THE FUKUSHIMA NUCLEAR CRISIS

EARLY HOURS AT FUKUSHIMA NUCLEAR POWER PLANT AFTER THE EARTHQUAKE AND TSUNAMI STRUCK

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Workers at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant manually shut down the No. 3 reactor's emergency cooling system in the early hours of March 13. Cooling of the reactor remained suspended for more than six hours because they failed to secure an alternative way to inject water. At the No. 2 reactor, workers did not measure the pressure and temperatures in its pressure suppression pool--which is the lower portion of the reactor's containment vessel--until the early hours of March 14. This failure eventually caused the plant to be unable to lower the pressure in the reactor--a necessary step to inject water. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, July 16, 2012]

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Aftershocks, explosions and smoke hindered workers' desperate efforts to prevent the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant from escalating after the complex was hit by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. [Source: Nobuhiko Harada, Noriyuki Yoshida and Hirofumi Imazu, Yomiuri Shimbun, June 20 2011]

A report released by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), detailing the company's initial response to the disaster, shows workers struggling to cope with one problem after another amid extremely tense conditions. Under the command of plant head Masao Yoshida, they took various steps to cool its nuclear reactors, including injecting water and releasing vapor from reactor containment vessels. The TEPCO report reveals how workers stationed in three control rooms, which monitor the operations of the plant's six nuclear reactors, struggled to cope with the many unexpected events that plagued the nuclear reactors.

Yoshida told Jiji Press the situation at the outset of the crisis was "hellish." Speaking about hydrogen explosions that ripped through some reactor buildings soon after the nuclear crisis began, Yoshida said he felt "something catastrophic may be happening." "I along with my staff might have died in the Seismic-Isolated Building," he said, referring to the building used as a base for plant workers dealing with the crisis. [Source: Jiji Press, August 13, 2012]

Earthquake Strikes the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant

Eric Talmadge and Mari Yamaguchi of AP wrote: “When Unit 2 began to shake, Hiroyuki Kohno's first hunch was that something was wrong with the turbines. He paused for a moment, then went back to logging the day's radioactivity readings. He expected it to pass. Until the shakes became jolts. As sirens wailed, he ran to an open space, away from the walls, and raced down a long corridor with two colleagues. Parts of the ceiling fell around them. Outside, he found more pandemonium. "People were shouting about a tsunami," he said. "At that point, I really thought I might die." [Source: Eric Talmadge and Mari Yamaguchi, Associated Press, July 2, 2011]

“About 755 workers, including TEPCO employees and subcontractors, were on the premises. Yuji Sato was on break in a lounge in a small building about 60 feet (20 meters) from Unit 1, when the quake hit. He had worked all morning on the turbines. The quake broke the air conditioner and knocked the TV in the lounge off its stand. When the shaking stopped, Sato went outside. Concrete buildings had been heavily damaged, some walls reduced to rubble.” [Ibid]

“He and about 100 colleagues streamed up the hill behind the reactors. They walked. "None of us were all that afraid. Japan is a nation of earthquakes. We are used to them," Sato said. His brother-in-law, pump technician Yuta Tadano, was already up the hill in a second-story office at the time of the quake. A thin young man with pierced ears and long bangs, he worked for subcontractor Tokyo Energy and Systems Inc. Tadano wanted to go home to check on his wife, Akane, and 4-month-old son, Shoma. His boss said he expected them back at work on Monday. With the utter devastation outside the gate, the normally 20-minute drive home took four hours.” [Ibid]

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: On the afternoon of March 11th---a Fridaythe Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, on Japan’s Pacific coast, had more than six thousand workers inside. Yusuke Tataki was in the concrete building that contains Reactor No. 4. He is a tobi worker---a scaffolder---and, at thirty-three, is small and nimble. Like many of the plant’s employees, he grew up nearby. He often skipped classes to surf, and after high school he worked, unhappily, on an assembly line welding circuit boards, until he got into scaffolding, which has kept him employed, on and off, at nuclear plants ever since. “Even when there’s no work elsewhere, there is work at the plants,” he told me recently. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, October 17, 2011]

At 2:46 P.M. on March 11th, an earthquake began to rattle the building, more violent than any Tataki could remember. It knocked him to the ground, and the lights failed. In darkness, he heard steel crashing against steel and men shouting. The building groaned. Heavy objects fell around him from heights of three or four stories. When the shaking stopped and emergency lights came on, the air was thick with a chalky haze of dust and concrete. Tataki knew that the only way out of the building was through an air lock---a set of parallel doors designed to prevent contamination---but the quake had jammed it shut. The workers around him were disciplined but anxious, and they banged on the door for help. “We all knew that during a quake everything in there could become contaminated with radiation,” he told me.

After a few minutes, a guard managed to open the jammed door, and Tataki hurried toward the parking lot. He has a wife and two children, and wanted to check on them and on his house. About seven hundred employees remained. “We had trained for this,” Keiichi Kakuta, a forty-two-year-old father of two, who worked in the public-affairs department, told me. “Of course, the mood was tense, but after someone said the reactors had shut down I saw the plant chief calmly instructing people what to do.” To ride out the aftershocks, Kakuta holed up, with most of the others, in the plant’s radiation-resistant Emergency Crisis Headquarters, situated on a small slope nearby. Japanese authorities had picked up the trail of a tsunami sweeping across the Pacific, but its precise approach was still a mystery.

Japanese Government at the Time of the Earthquake

Eric Talmadge and Mari Yamaguchi of AP wrote: “On March 11, Prime Minister Naoto Kan was taking a beating in an Upper House committee meeting over whether he had taken campaign money from a foreign national, which is illegal in Japan. The questioning stopped suddenly when the entire parliament building, a sprawling structure in the center of Tokyo, started to rock. It was 2:46 p.m. All eyes rose to the huge crystal chandeliers above, clinking and shaking violently. "Everyone, please stay in a safe position," committee chairman Yosuke Tsuruho said, grasping the armrests of his upholstered velvet chair. "Please duck under your desk."

Within four minutes, a crisis headquarters was up and running across the street in the prime minister's office. Kan rushed there as soon as the shaking subsided. At 3:37 p.m. he convened a roundtable of his top advisers. Soon after the tsunami hit, Kan's task force was deluged by reports of massive damage up and down the coast, aerial photos and video showing entire villages gone.

After the Earthquake Strikes the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant

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The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “At about 3:30 p.m. on March 11, the lights in the central control rooms for the Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4 reactors went off, including indicator lights of meters and gauges, after tsunami hit the power plant. Warning signals that were screaming nosily after the earthquake also stopped. Dust hung in the air at the central control room for reactors No. 3 and 4, covering the room like a smoke screen, and employees could not work there until it settled.” [Source: Nobuhiko Harada, Noriyuki Yoshida and Hirofumi Imazu, Yomiuri Shimbun, June 20 2011]

After the plant lost power, workers could not measure water levels in the reactors. Realizing the seriousness of this, the disaster headquarters established at the plant after the quake ordered workers to give top priority to confirming the water levels as soon as possible. Workers gathered batteries and connecting cables from subcontractors supporting TEPCO at the power plant, in a vain effort to restore meters and gauges.

At the same time, the headquarters asked TEPCO to send power generating vehicles to the plant, but their arrival was delayed significantly by traffic congestion. There was talk of transporting power generators by Self Defense Forces and U.S military helicopters, but it was soon discovered they were too heavy to transport by air. All the plant's switchboards stopped functioning after being submerged by tsunami, except one at the No. 2 reactor. About 40 workers struggled to connect the switchboard to a power generating vehicle with a cable 200 meters long and weighing more than a ton.

A major tsunami warning was issued during their efforts, which also were interrupted by aftershocks from time to time. At 3:30 p.m. on March 12, the workers finally succeeded in connecting the switchboard and the power generating vehicle. Just six minutes later, however, an explosion occurred at the No. 1 reactor building. Debris from the building severed the cable, rendering it useless.

Serious Damage to Fukushima Plant Before the Tsunami Struck

Jake Adelstein and David McNeill wrote on The Atlantic Online: It’s been one of the mysteries of Japan’s ongoing nuclear disaster: How much of the damage did the March 11 earthquake inflict on Fukushima Daiichi’s reactors in the 40 minutes before the devastating tsunami arrived? [Source: Jake Adelstein and David McNeill, The Atlantic, July 2, 2011]

The authors have spoken to several workers at the plant who recite the same story: Serious damage to piping and at least one of the reactors before the tsunami hit. All have requested anonymity because they are still working at the plant or are connected with TEPCO. One worker, a maintenance engineer in his late twenties who was at the Fukushima complex on March 11, recalls hissing and leaking pipes. “I personally saw pipes that came apart and I assume that there were many more that had been broken throughout the plant. There’s no doubt that the earthquake did a lot of damage inside the plant," he said. "There were definitely leaking pipes, but we don’t know which pipes---that has to be investigated. I also saw that part of the wall of the turbine building for Unit 1 had come away. That crack might have affected the reactor.”

The reactor walls of the reactor are quite fragile, he notes. “If the walls are too rigid, they can crack under the slightest pressure from inside so they have to be breakable because if the pressure is kept inside and there is a buildup of pressure, it can damage the equipment inside the walls so it needs to be allowed to escape. It’s designed to give during a crisis, if not it could be worse---that might be shocking to others, but to us it’s common sense.”

A second worker, a technician in his late 30s, who was also on site at the time of the earthquake, narrated what happened. “It felt like the earthquake hit in two waves, the first impact was so intense you could see the building shaking, the pipes buckling, and within minutes, I saw pipes bursting. Some fell off the wall. Others snapped. I was pretty sure that some of the oxygen tanks stored on site had exploded but I didn’t see for myself. Someone yelled that we all needed to evacuate and I was good with that. But I was severely alarmed because as I was leaving I was told and I could see that several pipes had cracked open, including what I believe were cold water supply pipes. That would mean that coolant couldn’t get to the reactor core. If you can’t sufficiently get the coolant to the core, it melts down. You don’t have to have to be a nuclear scientist to figure that out.” As he was heading to his car, he could see the walls of the reactor one building itself had already started to collapse. “There were holes in them. In the first few minutes, no one was thinking about a tsunami. We were thinking about survival.”

A third worker was coming into work late when the earthquake hit. “I was in a building nearby when the earthquake shook. After the second shockwave hit, I heard a loud explosion that was almost deafening. I looked out the window and I could see white smoke coming from reactor one. I thought to myself, “this is the end.” When the worker got to the office five to 15 minutes later the supervisor ordered them all to evacuate, explaining, “there’s been an explosion of some gas tanks in reactor one, probably the oxygen tanks. In addition to this there has been some structural damage, pipes have burst, meltdown is possible. Please take shelter immediately.” (It should be noted that there have been several explosions at Daiichi even after the March 11 earthquake, one of which TEPCO stated, “was probably due to a gas tank left behind in the debris”.) However, while the employees prepared to leave, the tsunami warning came. Many of them fled to the top floor of a building near the site and waited to be rescued.

The reason for official reluctance to admit that the earthquake did direct structural damage to reactor one is obvious.Katsunobu Onda, author of TEPCO: The Dark Empire , who sounded the alarm about the firm in his 2007 book explains it this way: “If TEPCO and the government of Japan admit an earthquake can do direct damage to the reactor, this raises suspicions about the safety of every reactor they run. They are using a number of antiquated reactors that have the same systematic problems, the same wear and tear on the piping.”

On May 15, TEPCO went some way toward admitting at least some of these claims in a report called “Reactor Core Status of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station Unit One.” The report said there might have been pre-tsunami damage to key facilities including pipes. “This means that assurances from the industry in Japan and overseas that the reactors were robust is now blown apart,” said Shaun Burnie, an independent nuclear waste consultant. “It raises fundamental questions on all reactors in high seismic risk areas.” As Burnie points out, TEPCO also admitted massive fuel melt --16 hours after loss of coolant, and 7-8 hours before the explosion in unit 1. “Since they must have known all this - their decision to flood with massive water volumes would guarantee massive additional contamination - including leaks to the ocean.”

No one knows exactly how much damage was done to the plant by the quake, or if this damage alone would account for the meltdown. However, eyewitness testimony and TEPCO’s own data indicates that the damage was significant. All of this despite the fact that shaking experienced at the plant during the quake was within it’s approved design specifications. Says Hasuike: “What really happened at the Fukushima Daiicihi Nuclear Power Plant to cause a meltdown? TEPCO and the government of Japan have provided many explanations. They don’t make sense. The one thing they haven’t provided is the truth. It’s time that they did.”

Tsunami Swamps Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant

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“About 30 minutes after the March 11 earthquake hit, an employee of a Tokyo Electric Power Co. subcontractor working in a building near one of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant's reactors heard an ominous roar. The worker was hearing the giant tsunami that was about to swamp the nuclear plant---an unstoppable wall of water that would easily breach the plant's breakwater and proceed to wash away the pumps that supplied water to cool the nuclear reactors. Safe on higher ground, another worker turned to look at the ocean and noticed a huge bowllike object floating out at sea. It was the fuel tank for the emergency diesel generators, he realized.” [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, April 17, 2011]

The Fukushima plant survived the enormous shaking caused by the magnitude-9.0 temblor because of earthquake safety measures put in place long before. Against the tsunami, however, the nuclear power station was almost defenseless.

Eric Talmadge and Mari Yamaguchi of AP wrote: “The first wave hit the plant at 3:27 p.m. At 13 feet, it was easily blocked by the plant's breakwater, which stands 33 feet above sea level. But the one that struck eight minutes later was off the scale. It flowed up and over the barrier, washed over a 33-foot (10-meter) water tank and tossed passenger cars this way and that. Watermarks suggest the wave may have been as high as 50 feet (15 meters).” [Source: Eric Talmadge and Mari Yamaguchi, Associated Press, July 2, 2011]

“Kohno climbed a small hill and turned to look back. Black plumes rose from the reactor units. The emergency generators, burning diesel, had kicked in. He saw the wave. It crashed over the plant's seawall, stopping only when it reached the foot of the slope about 500 yards (460 meters) from where he stood. Kohno watched, stunned.”

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: At the plant, the first wave arrived at 3:27 P.M., but it did not overtop a thirty-three-foot concrete seawall. Eight minutes later, the second wave appeared: a churning white mass of water, four stories tall, that leaped over sixty thousand concrete blocks and barriers---designed to defend against typhoons, not tsunamis---and advanced toward the reactors. First, the water approached the turbine buildings, which had been built with large shutters facing the sea. It burst through the closed shutters and swamped the buildings. Inside, the plant’s emergency diesel generators, each the size of an eighteen-wheeler, were stored on the ground floor and in the basements. They were destroyed, and two workers who had been sent underground to check for leaks were killed. The water hurled pickup trucks pinwheeling end over end into delicate pipes and equipment, and it swamped the campus in roiling brown pools, fifteen feet deep, leaving the nuclear reactors protruding like boulders in a river. And then it recoiled into the sea. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, October 17, 2011]

Two minutes after the water arrived, the plant’s main control rooms began to lose electrical power. Hundreds of gauges and instruments went dark or froze. A worker who was keeping a log of the deteriorating situation scribbled something unprecedented in a Japanese nuclear plant: “SBO”---station blackout. Kakuta said to himself, “What happens now?” Without a constant source of coolant, the nuclear fuel rods in the heart of the three active reactors would eventually boil away the water that prevents them from melting down. The log entry was grim: “Water levels unknown.” Workers desperate for electricity had to improvise: they fanned out into the parking lot to scavenge car batteries from any vehicles that had survived the wave.

Fukushima Nuclear-Response Center Lost Functions

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A power loss shut down of an off-site emergency response center near the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant for half a day after the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, delaying the initial response to the nuclear disaster at the power plant, according to sources. According to the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, the center lost its external power supply immediately after the earthquake, and an emergency diesel generator stopped operating soon after. Due to the power loss, agency officials stationed at the center were unable to use important equipment such as monitors that show conditions inside the plant. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, September 27, 2011]

The agency, which believes the earthquake caused the generator to break down, had not taken any anti-seismic reinforcement measures to protect the generator, the agency said. The off-site center is located in Okumamachi, Fukushima Prefecture, about five kilometers from the nuclear power plant.

According to the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency and the Fukushima prefectural government, the emergency generator went on when the external power supply was lost immediately after the earthquake occurred at 2:46 p.m. However, the generator stopped working within about one hour after the earthquake, and the center lost all its functions. The generator was on the first floor of the center.

Agency officials moved to the Fukushima prefectural government's Environmental Radioactivity Monitoring Center next to the off-site center building. The government's local emergency headquarters for the nuclear crisis was established at the response center at about 7 p.m., but the agency officials had to continue working in one of the rooms of the radioactivity monitoring center.

The radioactivity monitoring center became so crowded with people that the activities of the agency officials and Fukushima prefectural government officials were delayed. "We weren't able to perform some of the work that should have been done soon after the earthquake, such as preparing to measure radiation doses," a Fukushima prefectural government official said.

Due to the power loss, officials were unable to use a videoconference system at the center, which connects the center to the central and local governments, and a TV monitor displaying communications between the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant and TEPCO’s head office in Tokyo. The power was out when Motohisa Ikeda, then senior vice minister of the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry, arrived at the response center at midnight with senior officials of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency to serve as the chief of the local emergency headquarters.

Sometime after Ikeda's arrival, an electrician determined that a pump sending diesel oil to the generator from a tank placed in the basement was not working due to a faulty switch on the pump's control panel. The electrician fixed the fault, and the center's functions were restored at about 3 a.m. the next day. According to the agency, the emergency generator has the capacity to provide electricity to the off-site center for two days.

The agency said it had not taken any antiquake measures for the emergency generator as operational regulations of the Law on Special Measures Concerning Nuclear Emergency Preparedness do not require any. The agency believes the shock of the earthquake caused the generator to break down. The temblor registered in the upper 6 level on the Japanese seismic intensity scale of 7 in areas around the off-center site.

On March 15, the agency ordered officials to evacuate from the center after radiation levels went up due to the repeated hydrogen explosions at the power plant's nuclear reactors and the shortage of water and food. The local emergency headquarters was moved to Fukushima city, about 60 kilometers from the nuclear power plant.

Tsunami Swamps Fukushima’s Power Generators

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“Most of the power plant sits on ground about 10 meters above sea level. But most of the 13 emergency generators were in the basements of reactor buildings close to the ocean, with only three aboveground. The only generator that survived the tsunami---which are believed to have reached heights of 14 meters or 15 meters---was the one for the No. 6 reactor, which was about 3 meters aboveground.” [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, April 17, 2011]

At the Fukushima No. 1 facility, the utility equipped the Nos. 2, 4 and 6 reactors with air-cooled backup generators from 1997 to 1999, in addition to 10 water-cooled generators already at the six-reactor complex. The March 11 earthquake and tsunami, however, painfully exposed the insufficiency of these measures, which were meant to ensure emergency power would not be lost. [Source: June 15, 2011]

Only one of the air-cooled generators for the No. 6 reactor, which sat 13 meters above sea level, was still operable after the tsunami. The generator barely got the Nos. 5 and 6 reactors into a state of stable cooling. The other air-cooled generators at the Nos. 2 and 4 reactors--even though they were 10 meters above sea level--were rendered useless when the tsunami submerged their switchboards. All 10 of the plant's water-cooled emergency generators were also inundated. [Ibid]

"We took it for granted that the quake-resistant design of our Fukushima and other nuclear plants was fail-safe," one former TEPCO executive told the Yomiuri Shimbun. "But I now doubt how serious we were about preparing for a severe disaster." "If only we'd put the backup generators on even higher ground away from the reactors, the Nos. 1 to 4 reactors might not have been damaged," he said. [Ibid]

Since no damage to key pipes or devices has been confirmed as directly due to the quake TEPCO maintained its view that it was only after the tsunami hit that the plant lost all its power sources, eventually leading to the loss of the reactors' key cooling functions. TEPCO said the No. 1 reactor's isolation condenser was temporarily manually stopped by operators but the action was appropriate as it was done in accordance with the reactor's operation manual. After the isolation condenser was automatically activated at 2:52 p.m. on March 11, the device was later switched on and off for about 30 minutes beginning at 3:03 p.m. until the electricity was completely lost. Some experts pointed to the possibility that the meltdown could have been slowed if the device was not stopped. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, May 25, 2011]

Control Room Immediately After the Tsunami Struck Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant

Eric Talmadge and Mari Yamaguchi of AP wrote: on the day of the disaster, “Team A, a crew of 13, including a trainee, was overseeing Units 1 and 2 in one control room. In another, a crew of nine was responsible for Units 3 and 4. The latter, along with Units 5 and 6, was offline for maintenance. The first news was good. All three working reactors automatically came to an emergency shutdown when the shaking began. Within one minute, all control rods were inserted properly into the cores, stopping the nuclear reactions.” [Source: Eric Talmadge and Mari Yamaguchi, Associated Press, July 2, 2011]

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inside the control room

After the tsunami struck, “Team A watched, horrified, as the plant deteriorated by the minute. A detailed operator's log, along with a handwritten timeline on the control room whiteboard, showed how quickly the units failed. "15"37' D/G 1B trip," said a scribbled notation indicating the Unit 1 diesel generator went out. It was 3:37 p.m., just two minutes after the second wave had struck. Then: "SBO." Station Blackout. The power was out. [Ibid]

“Four minutes later, at 3:41 p.m., Unit 2 lost power. Minutes after that, key instrument readings stopped. In the dark, workers found a main power switchboard had been submerged and a main power line brought down by a mudslide. The basement of the Unit 1 turbine building was filled with water. Two workers would later be found drowned in the basement of another turbine room.” [Ibid]

Exactly what was happening inside the reactors remained a mystery. At 3:50 p.m., Team A wrote: "Water levels unknown." If not replenished, the water in the core would boil away and the rods would melt. Two minutes later, Team A added an even more dire note on Unit 2: "ECCS injection not possible." The emergency core cooling system, the last-ditch backup to keep the core from going dry, was down. It was an hour after the tsunami, and Team A desperately requested emergency power vehicles. By the time they arrived and were hooked up, it would be too late. [Ibid]

Matthew L. Wald wrote in the New York Times: The Institute of Nuclear Power Operations report “points out that many plant workers had lost their homes and even their families in the tsunami, and that for days after the quake, they were sleeping on the floor at the plant, soaking up radiation doses even in the control room. Because of food shortages, they were provided with only a biscuit for breakfast and a bowl of noodles for dinner. [Source: Matthew L. Wald, New York Times, November 11, 2011]

Working in darkness and without electricity, even simple tasks became challenging. At one point, control room operators formed themselves into teams of two, to dash into high-dose areas to try to open a crucial vent. One would hold the flashlight and monitor the radiation dose, while the other would try to get a valve to move. But there was no communication once the team was in the field, so the next team could leave for the reactor only after the first had returned. Eventually, the radiation levels got too high, and they gave up. The first explosion rocked the plant soon after, belching clouds of radioactive materials and giving the world its clearest sense of the scope of the catastrophe unfolding in Japan.

Government and TEPCO at the Time the Tsunami Strikes Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: As night fell on March 11th, it became clear that the Fukushima Daiichi plant’s operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, which produces a third of the country’s electricity, had been unprepared for such a disaster. After the lights went out in the plant, engineers had to borrow flashlights from nearby homes in order to creep through dark, waterlogged passageways to study the gauges. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, October 17, 2011]

There was no mystery about what they were facing: the core of each operating reactor held at least twenty-five thousand twelve-foot fuel rods’slender metal tubes filled with pellets of enriched uranium. When things were working normally, the nuclear reaction in the core produced enormous amounts of heat, used to boil water for steam. The steam drove a set of turbines that generated electricity. The reaction also produced radioactive isotopes, which are safely contained within a series of steel-and-concrete defenses arranged like nesting dolls. But, with the power out, and emergency systems down, there was no way to cool the hot fuel; it was rapidly boiling away the water around it---creating huge pressure in the reactor---and eventually it would begin to melt, eating through the shells encasing it.

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government leaders meet
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Eric Talmadge and Mari Yamaguchi of AP wrote: “Within four minutes after the earthquake struck, a crisis headquarters was up and running across the street in the prime minister's office. Kan rushed there as soon as the shaking subsided. At 3:37 p.m. he convened a roundtable of his top advisers. Soon after the tsunami hit, Kan's task force was deluged by reports of massive damage up and down the coast, aerial photos and video showing entire villages gone.” [Source: Eric Talmadge and Mari Yamaguchi, Associated Press, July 2, 2011]

“Kan, who majored in applied physics in college, was among the first whose attention went to the 40-year-old nuclear plant, according to Kenichi Shimomura, a senior aide who was with him. The prime minister demanded an assessment. The plant's operator was in disarray. Phone calls to the utility, Tokyo Electric Power Co., or TEPCO, went unanswered, and what little information trickled out was conflicting. In those critical first hours, the government was flying blind.” [Ibid]

“TEPCO President Masataka Shimizu, who was traveling, boarded a military airlift from Nagoya after he heard the news. But the flight was turned around. The Defense Ministry bumped him to free up its planes for the emergency response. Kan quietly repeated to himself what was by now in the back of everyone's mind: “This is going to be a disaster.”" [Ibid]

Yukio Edano, the chief Cabinet spokesman, is the face of Japan's government. At 7:45 p.m., his job was to make an unprecedented statement to the nation---but make it sound routine and reassuring. "We have declared a nuclear emergency," he said from behind a podium in the press conference room at the prime minister's office. "Let me repeat that there is no radiation leak, nor will there be a leak." He was wrong. Recently released TEPCO documents reveal that radiation was detected at the plant perimeter at 5:30 p.m., but the utility apparently didn't fax those readings to the government until shortly after 9 p.m. In the meantime, a two-mile (three-kilometer) evacuation zone around the plant was established. That later would become 6 miles (10 kilometers), then 12 (20). In the end, more than 80,000 people would be forced to flee. [Ibid]

TEPCO claimed that after the onset of the crisis on March 11, it proposed to the government that it withdraw only some of its workers from the crippled plant. However, Edano told the committee that then TEPCO President Masataka Shimizu had hinted at "withdrawing all workers" over the phone. In response, Edano said: "If [TEPCO] does such a thing, we won't be able to get [the plant] under control. If the situation gets worse, we won't be able to stop [the crisis]." Shimizu then stammered, Edano told the committee. [Source: Makoto Mitsui and Shozo Nakayama, Yomiuri Shimbun, May 29, 2012]

“Edano also said he spoke directly with Masao Yoshida, then chief of the plant, over the phone and asked him if there were any more options to deal with the crisis. Yoshida told him: "There are still things we can do. We'll do our best," according to Edano. After speaking with government officials over the phone, Shimizu visited the Prime Minister's Office and said TEPCO had no intention of withdrawing every worker from the plant. Edano argued that Shimizu gave up withdrawing all workers because the idea was rejected by the Prime Minister's Office. [Ibid]

Nuclear Reactor Cooling Failed Before Tsunami

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The Yomiuri Shimbun reported in May that “the emergency cooling system of the No. 1 reactor at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant malfunctioned after the March 11 earthquake and before the tsunami hit. According to a large cache of data concerning plant operations from March 11 to 14 released by TEPCO, the No. 1 reactor's isolation condenser, which operates on direct-current power, began to malfunction shortly after the main March 11 earthquake struck.

According to the data, the No. 1 reactor was put into emergency shutdown immediately after the earthquake when control rods were inserted into the reactor core. The isolation condenser was then automatically activated at 2:52 p.m., initiating cooling and pressure reduction inside the reactor. However, around 3 p.m., only about 10 minutes after it began operating, the isolation condenser stopped functioning temporarily, and then went on and off intermittently as valves between the condenser and the pressure containment vessel were opened and closed, according to operation records.

According to TEPCO, the pressure within the reactor fluctuated violently immediately after the earthquake. The cause of these fluctuations is not known, but TEPCO suspects workers manually suspended the condenser to stabilize the pressure. When the tsunami hit, an emergency diesel generator that started after the earthquake was disabled, totally cutting off power. Other cooling devices failed, and temperature and pressure data for the No. 1 reactor became unavailable for a time.

At the No. 2 reactor, which has a different design than the No. 1 unit, a reactor core isolation cooling system---another type of emergency cooling system that operates on batteries---continued to operate for nearly three days after it started at 3:02 p.m. on March 11. Operators manually kept the system going until about 1:30 p.m. on March 14, to deal with fluctuating water levels inside the reactor.

According to TEPCO after the tsunami completely knocked out the cooling system, fuel rods in the No. 1 reactor melted down. If the cooling system had operated normally, the meltdown could have been delayed, according to some nuclear experts.

Futile Efforts to Bring Electricity to the Fukushima Plant a Day After the Tsunami

Matthew L. Wald wrote in the New York Times: Fukushima Daiichi Unit 1 was stuck in darkness, and everyone on site feared that the reactor core was damaged. It was the day after a huge earthquake and a towering tsunami devastated the plant, and the workers for Tokyo Electric Power Company knew they were the only hope for halting an unfolding nuclear disaster. [Source: Matthew L. Wald, New York Times, November 11, 2011]

Another power company tried to help. It rushed a mobile electrical generator to the site to power the crucial water pumps that cool the reactor. But connecting it required pulling a thick electrical cable across about 650 feet of ground strewn with debris from the tsunami and made more treacherous by open holes left when manhole covers were washed away. The cable, four inches in diameter, weighed approximately one ton, and 40 workers were needed to maneuver it into position. Their urgent efforts were interrupted by aftershocks and alarms about possible new tsunamis.

By 3:30 in the afternoon, the workers had managed what many consider a heroic feat: they had hooked up the cable. Six minutes later, a hydrogen explosion ripped through the reactor building, showering the area with radioactive debris and damaging the cable, rendering it useless. These details come from a 98-page chronology of the Fukushima accident compiled by the the Atlanta-based Institute of Nuclear Power Operations based mainly on accounts by TEPCO and its workers and company data.

The report is likely to reinforce the conviction that venting from the containment vessels around reactors early in an accident is better than waiting, even though radioactive material will be released. The delays in Japan appear to have contributed to explosions that damaged the vessels and ultimately led to larger releases of contaminants. The chronology, however, suggests for the first time that some delays were because plant executives believed that they were required to wait for evacuation of surrounding areas.

Nuclear critics have long complained that emergency rules do not take into account that a natural phenomenon could cause an accident at a plant and make it hard to get help from outside. For example, although the plant had three fire engines that could have pumped in vital cooling water, one was damaged in the tsunami and another was blocked by earthquake damage to roads. Inspections at some American reactors after the Japanese quake and tsunami found that they were storing emergency gear in a way that made it vulnerable to the emergency it was intended for.

The report was perhaps most vivid when it was describing workers’ often unsuccessful efforts to salvage the situation. In one case, plant workers are said to have broken through a security fence to take a fire truck to unit 1 so it could pump water to cool the reactor. (The plant’s cooling system by that time was unusable, and without it, reactors and fuel pools can overheat and cause meltdowns.)

But as often happened during the disaster, the workers’ struggles only partly paid off. Increasing heat caused the pressure inside the containment vessel to build. By the time the fire truck started pumping, workers were able to force in less than 10 gallons per minute, not much more than a kitchen faucet puts out. That was far too little to cool the nuclear fuel and reduce pressure.

Masao Yoshida: “I Thought Everything Was Over”

"The week from March 11 [the day of the Great East Japan Earthquake] was our toughest period. There were several occasions when I thought I would die," Masao Yoshida, director of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, told the Yomiuri Shimbun. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, November 15, 2011]

After hearing the blast and seeing injured people return from the explosion site, Yoshida, 56, assumed the worst possible scenario--that the containment vessel covering the reactor had exploded and a large amount of radiation might have been emitted Into the atmosphere.It was decided to inject water to cool nuclear fuel inside the reactor, but this proved difficult because of elevated pressure levels.

"I couldn't imagine what would happen next. There was a real chance of the reactor becoming uncontrollable if it continued to melt down. I thought everything was over at that time," Yoshida said. Yoshida stepped down as manager at the Fukushima plant at the end of November 2011 after being diagnosed with esophagus cancer. The disease is unlikely to have resulted from exposure to radiation, according to TEPCO.

Earthquake, Tsunami and Fukushima Crisis “Too Much Work”

Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yukio Edano, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported, has admitted that during his time as chief cabinet secretary, he had difficulty announcing official information on the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant because he was too busy coordinating the many government entities' policies on the crisis. "Frankly speaking, the system demanded too much work. The same person [chief cabinet secretary] had to do the hands-on job of coordinating government ministries and agencies' policies on the crisis, and simultaneously convey information [to the public] based on those policies," Edano told the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Committee of the Diet. [Source: Makoto Mitsui and Shozo Nakayama, Yomiuri Shimbun, May 29, 2012]

“At the public hearing of a Diet committee probing the nuclear crisis, Edano also detailed how the Prime Minister's Office became increasingly distrustful of Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the crippled nuclear power plant, and the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA). As a result, the Prime Minister's Office increased its direct involvement in dealing with the situation, Edano said. [Ibid]

“Asked about Prime Minister Naoto Kan's visit to the Fukushima plant a day after the crisis broke out, Edano said, "We called NISA and TEPCO officials to come to the Prime Minister's Office for explanations, but the situation remained unclear. Information from TEPCO kept changing. So we came to the conclusion that someone in a position higher than the senior vice minister of the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry needed to visit the plant.” [Ibid]

“Edano’s said Kan's visit was intended to improve the situation, which was marred by insufficient information. However, Edano said he did not support the visit. He said he told Kan: "You won't be able to escape from the emotional backlash if your visit disrupts work [at the plant]. So I hardly recommend [that you visit]." But Kan was insistent to visit the plant. Asked about the prime minister's action, Edano said: "[The visit] had negative effects, but it also had positive results. It was a decision made by the prime minister.” [Ibid]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, Daily Yomiuri, Japan Times, Mainichi Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2013

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