Video shows disorganized response to Fukushima accident

August 07, 2012

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN

Video of teleconferences between senior executives at Tokyo Electric Power Co. and those working at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant show the two groups were often at cross-purposes in dealing with last year's disaster.

The footage comes from a condensed version of videos of teleconferences held in the immediate aftermath of last year's accident and provided to media organizations by TEPCO.

The following scene, from March 14, 2011, highlights the difficulties between those at the plant trying to deal with the emergency and executives at TEPCO's Tokyo headquarters trying to provide advice. Earlier in the day, the cooling mechanism for the No. 2 reactor had stopped and coolant water in the reactor was being rapidly lost.

In video footage of the teleconference that followed, Yuichi Hayase, a TEPCO adviser who once served as executive vice president, grabs the microphone at TEPCO headquarters and addresses Masao Yoshida, the head of the Fukushima No. 1 plant at the time, and says, "Hey, Yoshida, if you can conduct venting, do it soon, as quickly as you can."

Akiyoshi Minematsu, a senior official with a background in nuclear energy technology, also expresses concern about the need to vent the reactor core to reduce pressure.

"It would be a disaster if the dry well [in the upper portion of the containment vessel] was destroyed," Minematsu says. "At least open the valve for the dry well as soon as possible."

An official reports, "If there is core damage because of continued high pressure, it would only take a few hours before the containment vessel was also damaged."

The string of bad news leads several executives to bury their faces in their hands, while others sigh.

Throughout the exchange, Masataka Shimizu, the president at the time, and Sakae Muto, the executive vice president in charge of nuclear energy, remain silent. In their places, Hayase and others at TEPCO headquarters shoot off rapid-fire comments to those at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. However, most of the comments only urge the workers to move quickly rather than provide real advice.

Yoshida finally has enough.

"Don't ask us any questions," he says. "Don't disturb us, because we are now in the middle of trying to open the vent for the containment vessel."

With the situation at the No. 2 reactor growing more serious by the hour, there emerges a difference of opinion between Yoshida and Haruki Madarame, chairman of the Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan, over what measure to take.

At 4:15 p.m. Yoshida presents his concerns to those at TEPCO headquarters, saying: "I received a phone call from Madarame of the NSC and he suggested that rather than use the vent line of the containment vessel, it would be better to pump in water first. Would it be all right to act under that judgment?"

According to Madarame, steam has to be released from the pressure vessel in order to inject water into the vessel containing the fuel rods.

However, Yoshida is of the opinion that the pressure will not drop unless the water temperature in the pool to which the steam would have to be released was lowered. Unless that is done, he says, there is the possibility that exposure of the fuel rods could occur sooner.

Yoshida asks those at TEPCO headquarters to try to convince Madarame. However, soon thereafter it becomes clear that Yoshida's measures will not work. Hearing that, Shimizu gives instructions to use the measures called for by Madarame.

Work proceeds according to Madarame's instructions, but the valve does not open immediately and valuable time slips by.

In the end, the situation remains serious, as neither measure has worked.

At 4:57 p.m., Shimizu gives instructions to those at the Fukushima plant to carry on their response while keeping in mind the worst-case scenario. Those at Fukushima say such a scenario would unfold in about two hours if nothing is done.

At 7:27 p.m., more than two hours later, discussion among those at TEPCO headquarters is centered on the possibility that all of the fuel rods have become exposed.

At that time, Akio Komori, the managing executive director, who is at the off-site center in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, mentions evacuation.

"Please proceed with the consideration of evacuation standards, because unless a decision is made somewhere about whether workers should remain at the central operating room something terrible will happen," he says.

While discussions are being held about evacuating workers from the plant, there is agreement that all of the fuel rods at the No. 2 reactor were exposed above water at 6:22 p.m.

Akio Takahashi, a senior official, says, "Can someone at headquarters confirm that we are evacuating everyone at Fukushima No. 1 to the visitor hall at Fukushima No. 2?"

Before Takahashi makes this comment, Shimizu can be seen talking on his mobile phone at 7:48 p.m. and leaving the video screen to the right. He is not visible in the video for a short period. Muto occasionally sits in the seat that Shimizu occupied.

While The Asahi Shimbun has reported that at that time Shimizu was trying to get in contact with an aide to Banri Kaieda, the economy minister at that time, no direct confirmation can be made from the video.

After Shimizu reappears on the video, he says, "I want to first confirm that at the present time we have not yet made a decision on a final evacuation. I am also right now proceeding with confirmation procedures with the proper authorities."

With that, Shimizu again exits the video screen.

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
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