Responders cowed by explosion at reactor 3 building of Fukushima No. 1



This is the eighth in a series on the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe based on the accounts of people who struggled to contain the crisis in its early stages. Job titles and ages are as of March 2011.

At 9:25 a.m. on March 13, 2011, workers at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant started pumping water into the No. 3 reactor from firetrucks after finding a way to ease the internal pressure more than six hours after it lost its cooling ability and started to overheat.

Despite their efforts, a blast would gut the No. 3 reactor building a little over 24 hours later, blowing off its roof and sides and leaving a towering mushroom cloud overhead. It would be the second hydrogen explosion to rock the plant since it was crippled by tsunami from the magnitude-9.0 earthquake on March 11.

But this one was more powerful. Tokyo Electric Power Co. employee Mitsuhiro Matsumoto, 47, was outside during both explosions. As a member of the restoration team, he was trying to restore power to the reactors by connecting a power truck to a switchboard in the No. 2 reactor’s turbine building, which still looked viable after being flooded by the waves.

After the first explosion, Matsumoto was reluctant to go out again, but he knew there was still a lot of work to do after rubble from the previous explosion, at reactor No. 1, damaged the heavy electrical cables he was trying to lay.

The thundering second explosion came at 11:01 a.m. on March 14, just after he had finished checking the switchboard’s insulation in the No. 2 turbine building and was walking toward a nearby vehicle.

The explosion kicked up so much dust that he couldn’t see anything around him, including his car, which was only about 10 meters away. When finally reached it, he found the driver’s seat had been crushed by a concrete block.

“I shuddered at the sight. If I had been inside, I would have been dead,” he recalled.

Around the same time, four other workers were trying to connect cables in a corridor between the No. 2 reactor building and its turbine building. After the explosion, banging sounds pelted them over and over again from overhead. They later found out it was chunks of concrete from the No. 3 reactor building, landing on the roof.

The workers felt it was impossible to continue laying cable due to the damage and the climbing radiation.

After the dust settled, Matsumoto ran along the road between reactors 2 and 3 toward the emergency response building. It was hard to breathe with a full face mask, but he kept running anyway. He just wanted to get away from wherever he was as quickly as possible.

When he arrived, a member of his restoration team, Kimio Ikeda, 50, began sobbing.

“You’re alive! I’m so glad!” he said upon seeing Matsumoto covered head to toe in dust.

But Matsumoto laid into him: “You told us we would be OK. You liar!”

Ikeda, in fact, hadn’t given Matsumoto any reassurances. But Matsumoto couldn’t help himself — he was incensed.

After the explosions, he was unable to believe anyone or any of the information he received.

“I completely lost my will to fight. I was determined to never go out again,” he recalled.

The explosion at No. 3 remains a vivid memory in Matsumoto’s mind.

“I have heard people in the office saying that after the nuclear accident broke out, they were prepared to die,” he said. “But in my case, I wasn’t prepared to die, even when I actually came very close to dying. And death was staring me in the face.”

Finding time to spare, Ikeda phoned his wife for the first time since the crisis began.

His wife started crying over the phone. Ikeda also heard his parents and son rejoicing.

“I cannot believe you are alive even after those explosions. You are alive!” she said.

“Yes, I am alive,” he answered, keeping his voice low in consideration of those who hadn’t been able to contact their families yet.

About 30 people in charge of the electricity equipment, including Matsumoto and Ikeda, had hardly slept. Many had already absorbed more than 100 millisieverts of radiation — the maximum allowed by Tepco over a five-year period.

After the second explosion, Yumiko Kato, 37, rushed to the emergency care room on the first floor of the emergency response building to help the injured.

A man injured by the rubble was soon brought in on a stretcher. Kato had to send him to the hospital because there were no doctors on hand. Before doing so, she wiped down his body with a wet cloth to remove some of the radiation-tainted dust.

The man moaned, his face distorted by pain.

Another man in the room was uninjured but in a state of panic.

“It’s my fault,” he said, as if he was the one to blame for the explosion.

Those feeling ill were taken to a meeting room on the second floor, next to the emergency response office. But Tepco quickly ran out of mattresses and had to put down cardboard for them to lie on.

Among them was a reactor operator who was in the main control room at the time of the explosion. Kato entered the room to see how he was doing.

But when the door closed behind her, the operator shouted: “Is that an explosion? Again?”

He then clasped his arms around his knees and trembled, muttering “I am afraid, afraid, afraid.”

Kato patted him on the back and assured him he was in a safe place, frustrated that she couldn’t do anything else.

Four Tepco employees, three contractors and four Self-Defense Force soldiers were injured by the explosion at No. 3.

Those at the emergency response office were mentally shaken.

“I want to go home,” a young female Tepco employee said as she started to cry. “What are we all doing here? What are we going to do if there is another explosion?”

She then asked Kato to take her away from the plant.

Kato put her arm around her shoulder and said, “Let’s believe in our people, because they are working very hard.”

The situation, however, only got worse, cornering everyone at the plant.