Depth of Fukushima No. 1 evacuation plan unclear in videos

by Jun Hongo

Staff Writer

Scrutiny of the 150 hours of teleconferencing footage recorded by Tokyo Electric Power Co. in the initial days of the March 2011 meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 plant shows that crucial decisions were being made hastily.

Tepco on Monday started letting journalists view the footage — 50 hours with audio and another 100 without — of the first five days of the crisis.

The video shows top executives discussing the “evacuation” of workers from the nuclear plant. But it didn’t give definitive clues on one critical question — whether Tepco was abandoning the plant for good amid the radioactive fallout.

“At what time will all the workers be evacuating from the site?” Akio Takahashi, a senior executive at Tepco’s Tokyo headquarters is heard asking Sakae Muto, then executive vice president, at 7:55 p.m. on March 14, the audible portion of the video shows.

By that time, Tepco had already concluded that the nuclear fuel assemblies in reactor 2 were fully exposed because critical coolant water had evaporated in the reactor.

If left uncooled, the nuclear fuel rods will melt and eventually breach the pressure vessel and damage the outer containment vessel, releasing massive amounts of radioactive fallout into the environment.

Takahashi asked again, “all the people will soon evacuate from 1F (a reference to Fukushima No. 1) to the visitor hall of 2F (the nearby Fukushima No. 2 plant), right?”

Tepco President Masataka Shimizu is heard saying at around 8:20 p.m. that “a final evacuation has not been decided yet” and that he is in the process of checking with “related authorities,” possibly referring to the office of then Prime Minister Naoto Kan.

Tepco claims it never considered totally abandoning Fukushima No. 1 and maintains that Takahashi was only talking about evacuating only noncritical workers, thus leaving the minimum necessary to deal with the crisis.

But Kan and other top government officials suspected Tepco was preparing a total withdrawal. They have said that a full pullout would have caused meltdowns in all of the plant’s six reactors as well as their spent-fuel pools, because there would have been no one there to restore and continue cooling operations. This scenario, they said, would have caused catastrophic radioactive fallout across eastern Japan. Earlier reports even indicated the whole Tokyo area would have been in jeopardy.

Yukio Edano, the chief Cabinet secretary at the time, said Shimizu called him at the prime minister’s office early on the morning of March 15, seeking approval to evacuate workers from the plant. The scene was not captured on the video.

Edano concluded from the conversation that Shimizu was looking to have all the workers retreat from the plant. Edano recalled replying: “If we did such a thing, the situation would be out of control. It would become worse and worse and just unstoppable.”

Edano said Shimizu was hesitant to answer, apparently realizing the gravity of what a total withdrawal would mean.

Shimizu later claimed he couldn’t remember if he placed that call to Edano at that time. The video footage released Monday gave no clue as to whether that exchange took place.

Kan, also gravely concerned by Tepco’s apparent intention to withdraw from Fukushima No. 1, visited the utility’s head office early on the morning of March 15 to set up a joint headquarters to take over emergency operations at the plant.

The video also included images of Kan’s visit. During a roughly 14-minute exchange, he reportedly condemned the Tepco executives present for considering a pullout. There was no audio portion accompanying the footage.

Tepco has claimed about 100 hours of the teleconference footage contained no audio because workers failed to set up and activate the audio recording function.

The footage also showed those on the forefront of the crisis demonstrating their true grit.

Masao Yoshida, then chief of the power plant, is recorded as saying elderly veterans on site “are ready to work as a (suicide) squad” to secure a pipe to be used for pumping seawater into reactor 2 to cool it down. Aged people are less vulnerable to the effects of radiation exposure than younger people.

The 150-hour-long footage was shown at Tepco’s HQ and no copying was allowed. The utility only released a 90-minute edited version of the video to the public.