Hopelessness reigned after TEPCO said Fukushima crisis 'out of control'

June 02, 2014

By HIDEAKI KIMURA/ Staff Writer

One of the darkest hours in the Fukushima nuclear disaster came very early on when plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. said the situation was out of control.

After hearing this, nuclear experts and government officials gathered at the prime minister's office in Tokyo got ready to throw in the towel, even though the plant manager was on-site and standing firm.

In interview with The Asahi Shimbun, Goshi Hosono, a special adviser to Naoto Kan, the prime minister at that time, conveyed the utter panic and hopelessness that gripped people in the room.

TEPCO executives said the nuclear reactors "are now out of control" as signs emerged of major damage to the No. 2 reactor's containment vessel. From that point, it seemed the only recourse would be to evacuate all plant workers as quickly as possible as a meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 plant became inevitable.

Hosono's account offers the most complete picture to date of the helplessness that raged as the enormity of the disaster became apparent early on March 15, 2011, four days after the earthquake and tsunami that triggered the crisis.

TEPCO officials became hugely alarmed around 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., when the pressure inside the reactor containment vessel started shooting up, prompting them to state that things are "out of control."

But then the courageous words of plant manager Masao Yoshida, who had spoken to Hosono just the day before, sprang to mind. Yoshida, who was in charge of dealing with the on-site situation, had boldly told Hosono, "I will do my best and stand firm."

Several senior executives from TEPCO headquarters arrived at the prime minister's office. They included Ichiro Takekuro, who was serving in a liaison capacity, and Susumu Kawamata, general manager of TEPCO's Nuclear Quality & Safety Management Department.

Hosono said the remark about the situation being out of control "was not made by a specific individual, but rather as a team of TEPCO members."

"It was shocking to hear the words 'out of control' from TEPCO. With nuclear experts saying the situation was out of control, there was no way I could tell them to keep it under control."

But Hosono was not in a quitting mood and tried to shake them out of their pessimism.

"I told TEPCO, 'Experts should be able to say something even in a situation like this. It's not the time to be low spirited. We have to do something, so just try to come up with a plan,' I told them strongly."

No one seemed to have anything meaningful to offer. Other nuclear experts who were present at the office, like Haruki Madarame, chairman of the Nuclear Safety Commission, shared the same mind-set with TEPCO that all options had run out in containing the disaster.

"With nothing we could do, we felt an overpowering sense of helplessness," Hosono recalled.

A full-withdrawal of all workers from the plant would mean that TEPCO had given up any hope of averting a full-scale disaster.

"Overall, we all thought the withdrawal had to be stopped no matter what, but we didn't have anything to back up our belief. How do we do this ... ? With TEPCO saying there was nothing they could do, we were consumed by hopelessness," said Hosono.

The members gathered at the prime minister's office were unable to reach an agreement on the level of withdrawal from the facility. But Hosono advised Kan to trust Yoshida, rather than TEPCO, when reaching his final decision.

In the end, Kan told TEPCO President Masataka Shimizu the same day that he would not allow the company to pull out all its workers.

* * *

The following is what Fukushima plant manager Masao Yoshida told a government inquiry panel about the situation at the stricken facility on March 14-15, 2011:

"It's because the water, it isn't going in. If water can't go in, the fuel, it's just going to melt away."

"It could be plutonium, it could be something else, but all substances amounting from the fuel are going to be released. It's going to be a much more serious matter than the current cesium situation because all the radioactive substances are going to be released and dispersed outside. We're imagining the collapse of eastern Japan."

"The situation is going to be more than a Chernobyl-class disaster, maybe not exactly like the film 'The China Syndrome,' but more like that. Then, we'll have to stop pumping water into the No. 1 and No. 3 reactors as well."

By HIDEAKI KIMURA/ Staff Writer
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Damage to the No. 4 reactor, background, and No. 3 reactor, foreground, left, at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant on March 15, 2001 (Provided by Tokyo Electric Power Co.)

Damage to the No. 4 reactor, background, and No. 3 reactor, foreground, left, at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant on March 15, 2001 (Provided by Tokyo Electric Power Co.)

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  • Damage to the No. 4 reactor, background, and No. 3 reactor, foreground, left, at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant on March 15, 2001 (Provided by Tokyo Electric Power Co.)

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