Helplessness as reactor 2 lost cooling

On verge of meltdown, operators feared evacuation of Tokyo possible



This is the ninth 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.

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.

  • “…might have to evacuate Tokyo…” Nuff said. Reactor accidents are not really accidents at all, because they are inevitable failures of complex systems with multiple areas for humans to lie, obfuscate, cheat, or simply make an honest mistake by underestimating what Mother Nature can do (though I wouldn’t call every so-called “mistake” an honest one). Fukushima saw humans doing everything wrong, which makes it no different from any other nuclear power plant. If Japan restarts its nuclear power plants, history will repeat itself, and possibly much worse. Other countries will learn the same lesson. Why learn it again? Wasn’t once enough? More than enough?

    • Starviking

      Fukushima was a Gen1 Power Plant, overwhelmed by a mega-Tsunami. Work was hampered by Raging Kan, and TEPCO – either wilfully or out of respect, cow-towing to his angry diatribes.

      The lesson has been learned – protect Japanese Power Plants against mega-tsunamis. AKA – follow the example of Onagawa.

      • It wasn’t the Tsunami, it was the earthquake which rattled loose the fittings and valves. The Tsunami was the cherry on top. There is no safe nuclear power plant, they are only one accident away from contaminating the 100 miles around them for tens of thousands of years. Period.

      • Starviking

        Do you have any references to back up your claims? For example, the plant starting to go badly wrong just after the earthquake?
        Personally, I have not come across anything authoritative which claims the earthquake doomed the plant. There’s lots on how a 16 metre tsunami had a big impact on the safe operation of the plant.

      • It was a massive earthquake. Tepco employees had to respond with SCRAMing the nuclear rods. Yes the Tsunami knocked out the power, but even if there was power the water pumps and pipes were badly daqmaged by the earthquake. The Fukushima plants were doubly whomped. All nuclear power plants on earthquake faults are at great risk of damage at the time of the earthquake. The nuclear rods need to be constantly cooled, any disuption of that leads to high pressures, tempertaures, and radioactive releases. There are much better ways to boil water without exposing the surrounding 100 milies to 10,000 years of off-limit boundaries. Chernobyl, Fukushima, more and more…

      • Sam Gilman

        Where do you get your 100 miles and 10,000 years from?

        What is your opinion of Gen4 reactors that operate at atmospheric pressure and cannot meltdown?

        As for better ways to boil water, I assume you mean better ways to produce electricity. The problem is that with the exception of hydro power, there aren’t better low carbon ways to produce good baseload electricity.

      • How much carbon did it take to pull out the Yellow Cake that made all those fuel rods? How much carbon will it take to watch the depleted fuel and waste for the next 10,000 years. You have heard of PU, Plutonium, right?

      • Sam Gilman

        Although you didn’t answer any of my questions, I’ll ask you another one:

        Given that it’s clear you don’t have a strong understanding of the science of any of this, why do you have such strong opinions?

        For example, yellow cake isn’t plutonium, it’s uranium.

        Nuclear fuel is tremendously energy dense, so the amount of CO2 produced in its manufacture and use is minuscule in terms of electricity produced when compared with coal, oil or gas – 20 to 80 times lower, and actually lower than solar and on a par with wind, according to IPCC figures.

        I’m afraid I can’t make any sense if the idea that stored nuclear waste produces meaningful levels of CO2.

        So what’s with your conviction when you’ve not read much on the topic?

      • Because you didn’t mention that coal and oil doesn’t mutate your genes, the only thing energy dense here is the cancer lumps that may appear in your stomach.

        How much energy does it take to convert or enrich uranium into plutonium?
        Will you eat fish out of the Pacific?

      • Sam Gilman

        Yes, I eat fish out of the pacific. I live in Japan.

        Coal kills thousands every year. Far more than nuclear power has ever killed. It’s estimated to be 4000 times more lethal per unit of electricity produced than nuclear power. All except the most insanely ideological anti-nuclear activists accept that coal is worse for human health and the environment.

      • Starviking

        Coal contains uranium, and far worse things besides.

        Drilled oil also contains natural radionuclides.

      • Starviking

        SCRAMs are automatic for any large earthquake. That happened in Niigata in 2007 – no reactors melted down. Thus SCRAMs are not equal to massive earthquake damage.

        On the technical points of the damage the 2011 earthquake did to Fukushima, the Japanese nuclear regulator, the NRA, have just released their conclusions on that matter. They say the plant did not suffer any critical damage from the earthquake.

        As for your claim that the surrounding 100 miles being off-limits: having lived within 100 miles of the Fukushima Daiichi plant for the last 10 years, that is rubbish.

      • You don’t even know, you are already dead.

      • Starviking

        OK, I think your response deserves two responses. First, I will give the scientific one:

        Your statements sum up to saying that people living within a radius of 100 miles about the Daiichi plant are “already dead”. I’m going to assume we’re talking cancer mainly as the cause of our soon-to-be-deadness.

        How can you say that there is a radius within which people are “already dead”? Do you not think that topography and wind-direction would have an effect? Or do you think that damaged nuclear plants emit a ‘field of death’ that magically dooms everyone within 100 miles of the plant? Is that how we are to be killed?

        And why 100 miles? That’s a very convenient figure. Did you pull it out of your hat?

        Do you even know what is within 100 miles of the plant? You have all of Fukushima and Miyagi Prefectures, most of Yamagata Prefecture – save for a coastal strip, and large parts of Niigata, Ibaragi, and Tochigi Prefectures. That’s approximately 10 million people. And we’re all dead? Where is your proof? Nothing untoward is happening in my area, or in my extended family, or with their friends, or their work colleagues.

        OK, now on to the ethical response.

        What if someone who reads your responses takes your words to heart? Your rather blunt words:

        “You are already dead”.

        It’s certainly going to have a negative effect on their lifestyle. It could possibly lead to what is termed ‘murder-suicide’ – after all, if someone gets convinced that they and their family is going to die, possibly agonisingly, that’s an option.

        Are you fine with the possible consequences of your words? Ruined lives, suicide, murder?

        I hope not.

    • tickedoff09

      Yes, in fact I would tend to agree with you Ace, But is was Japan manipulating the Weather System in and around Japan? Did they “cause” the Tsunami? Mother Nature? I don’t believe either is so. With HAARP and Weather Modication out in the open by the Super Tyrants of the Globe, it’s called Mass Depopulation.