This is the 10th 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.
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.