Insider's notes as Fukushima crisis unfolded describe disinterested TEPCO officials

June 12, 2014

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN

Like many government officials dealing with the initial stages of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Kenichi Shimomura was shocked by the paucity of information available.

As it turns out, updates were pouring in, but Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the stricken plant, was reluctant to turn them over.

Shimomura, the Cabinet Secretariat councilor in charge of public relations, was with Prime Minister Naoto Kan at TEPCO's head office in Tokyo as the Fukushima nuclear disaster was unraveling.

"Until then, I had the impression that we were dealing with someone who was overseas somewhere," Shimomura recalled. "I thought there was nothing we could do if TEPCO headquarters also did not have any information. So it was a major shock for me when I realized TEPCO headquarters had been receiving information but never bothered to pass it on to the prime minister's office which was located so close by."

Early on March 15, 2011, Shimomura entered a room at TEPCO headquarters that had a teleconferencing system connecting the utility's headquarters with six outside locations, including the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, the Fukushima No. 2 nuclear plant and the Fukushima offsite center.

Shimomura kept a notebook handy and sketched the six video monitors of the teleconferencing system at TEPCO headquarters.

He agreed to let Asahi Shimbun reporters see his jottings about the Fukushima nuclear accident triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami four days earlier.

Prior to becoming councilor, he worked as a reporter with Tokyo Broadcasting System Television Inc.

In an entry for March 15, 2011, Shimomura wrote that he went to TEPCO headquarters at 6:07 a.m.

TEPCO would eventually release video of the teleconferences held that day, but the sound was erased, ostensibly for privacy reasons.

As a result, the events of that day when radiation levels at the Fukushima No. 1 plant site reached alarming levels can only be pieced together through the recollections of those who were at the scene.

Prior to going to TEPCO headquarters, Shimomura was napping at the prime minister's office. He was suddenly awoken by a phone call and told: "TEPCO is saying it wants to pull its workers (from the Fukushima No. 1 plant). The prime minister is going to TEPCO headquarters."

Shimomura put on his disaster management uniform and was driven to TEPCO headquarters. He ran up to the second floor where a task force had been set up to deal with the nuclear accident. Someone in the prime minister's office whispered to Shimomura that Kan had just given TEPCO executives a tongue-lashing.

In his notes, Shimomura wrote: "Leaving the plant site will never be allowed. We cannot have the eastern half of Japan covered in nuclear waste!"

He went on to write: "Responsibility will be held from the company president on down. Those 60 and older should be prepared to die here."

DISINTERESTED TEPCO EXECUTIVES

The times Shimomura jotted down in his notebook for the most part match those found in TEPCO internal documents. He also sketched diagrams of technical explanations given by TEPCO officials about the nuclear plant.

The entry for 6:14 a.m. shows that the situation at the plant had changed dramatically for the worse.

Shimomura wrote: "There was a loud noise and (pressure) fell to zero."

Beside the entry, he made a sketch of the reactor containment vessel on the basis of an explanation given by TEPCO officials.

That was when officials at TEPCO headquarters received a report that an explosion had occurred in the vicinity of the No. 2 reactor and the pressure in the suppression chamber had abruptly fallen to zero.

In his notes, Shimomura states that TEPCO officials suspected the bottom of the pressure vessel may have broken off, a catastrophic development.

Shimomura writes that Kan called Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano and told him, "Something very grave has occurred."

Shortly before 7 a.m., TEPCO officials handed out a document titled "On moving the main office function."

Although there was no indication of where TEPCO wanted to move it to, Shimomura reckoned it meant relocating from the quake-proof control center building where Masao Yoshida, the Fukushima No. 1 plant manager, was working.

In the end, Yoshida did not leave the building, but there were still concerns about the reactor reaching a critical state if there was any let-up in work to pump water into the reactor to cool it.

Shimomura was so concerned about the situation, he admonished TEPCO officials, telling them that rather than simply say "work" they should always be clear they were referring to "water-pumping work."

Recalling that moment, Shimomura said, "I didn't want the water-pumping work to be gradually ignored as the situation unfolded."

Shimomura also felt that the TEPCO executives at the utility's headquarters seemed overly detached. He said it seemed as if they were not directly involved since they were far from the scene of the nuclear accident.

Other government officials who were at TEPCO headquarters also sensed the same thing.

Shimomura records Tetsuya Nishikawa, who was then assistant chief Cabinet secretary, yelling at TEPCO executives, "Don't you ever think that you are all right just because you are here (at TEPCO headquarters)."

Shimomura also jotted down an exchange between Kan and then TEPCO Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata at around 8 a.m.

Kan: "Don't just work on one thing, but create at least two lines of work and proceed simultaneously."

Katsumata: "Yes, thank you."

Kan: "Don't thank me. Are you saying you cannot do it?"

Shimomura recalled feeling fearful when he learned that fire had been confirmed at the No. 4 reactor at 9:38 a.m. Seventeen minutes later, Shimomura wrote that TEPCO reported: "The fire is out of control."

It was only at about 11 a.m. that the blaze had burned out by itself.

NO RECOLLECTION OF WORKERS LEAVING NO. 1 PLANT

The events at the No. 2 reactor described in Shimomura's notebook match the statements given by Yoshida to the government's Investigation Committee on the Accident at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Stations. The Asahi Shimbun obtained a copy of Yoshida's testimony.

Around 7 a.m. on March 15, while Shimomura was at TEPCO headquarters, about 90 percent of the workers at the Fukushima No. 1 plant temporarily fled to the Fukushima No. 2 plant about 10 kilometers away in direct violation of an order given by Yoshida.

In his testimony, Yoshida said, "In fact, I never told the workers to go (to the No. 2 plant)."

TEPCO internal documents record that Yoshida ordered workers to wait within the No. 1 plant site.

However, the utility maintained that the workers did not ignore Yoshida's instructions. They explained that evacuating temporarily to the No. 2 plant was always an option because Yoshida's order left open the possibility of leaving for the No. 2 plant if "there were no locations at the No. 1 plant where radiation levels were low."

In Shimomura's notes, there is no mention of TEPCO saying workers would temporarily evacuate to the No. 2 plant. At that time, Shimomura was with Kan as he was conferring with TEPCO executives while watching the teleconference.

Shimomura said he never heard talk from TEPCO that it wanted its workers to move to the No. 2 plant or that an order had been given to allow for such a move. He added that he would have noted such an exchange.

Shimomura said he had a different interpretation of the talk about evacuating workers. His sense was that it referred to moving workers at the central control room of the No. 2 reactor to the quake-proof control center building at the No. 1 plant where Yoshida was stationed.

Shimomura did jot down that at around 6:50 a.m. TEPCO staff informed officials in the prime minister's office that workers would return to their tasks about an hour after checking that radiation levels on the plant site had not risen.

Shimomura said, "The image I had was that the workers were at a location that would allow them to return to work immediately after an hour had passed. It never occurred to me that the workers had gone to the No. 2 plant."

Because the earthquake had damaged roads, coupled with the necessity of removing and putting on protective clothing and face masks when entering and leaving the No. 2 plant, workers who had fled there could not possibly return to the No. 1 plant in one hour.

In fact, the earliest that workers returned to the No. 1 plant was about noon.

With regard to the significance of the Yoshida testimony, Shimomura said, "I feel there is a need to read from it the lessons about whether people can pass on information properly when regular communications channels have been destroyed."

Asked why he decided to divulge his own notes on the nuclear accident, Shimomura said: "I kept quiet because I thought that no one would want to listen to someone who was in government at the time. However, I felt the time had come to speak up because the Yoshida testimony was revealed."

Shimomura said he was never questioned by the government investigative panel or asked to submit his notebooks.

(This article was written by Hideaki Kimura, Kyoko Horiuchi, Tomomi Miyazaki and Shinichi Sekine.)

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
  • 1
submit to reddit
Kenichi Shimomura being interviewed by The Asahi Shimbun (Tomomi Miyazaki)

Kenichi Shimomura being interviewed by The Asahi Shimbun (Tomomi Miyazaki)

Toggle
  • Kenichi Shimomura being interviewed by The Asahi Shimbun (Tomomi Miyazaki)
  • An entry in Kenichi Shimomura's notebook for March 15, 2011, has a sketch of the No. 2 reactor at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant and a comment by Prime Minister Naoto Kan. (Hideaki Kimura)
  • The cover of Kenichi Shimomura's notebook about the Great East Japan Earthquake and Fukushima nuclear accident (Hideaki Kimura)

More AJW