An explosion occurred at the No. 3 reactor building of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant at 11:01 a.m. on March 14.
Prime Minister Kan was disturbed that black smoke was spewing out of the facility. It was definitely different from the white smoke he had seen two days before when a hydrogen buildup in the No. 1 reactor building caused an explosion.
Kan cut short his meeting with New Komeito leader Yamaguchi, and calmly ordered his secretaries as well as Manabu Terada, 35, special adviser to the prime minister, to assemble all relevant personnel of the government's nuclear emergency response headquarters in his office.
Half an hour after the explosion, the key personnel were gathered in the prime minister's office. They included Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano; Banri Kaieda, 62, minister of economy, trade and industry; Edano's deputy, Tetsuro Fukuyama, 49; Masaya Yasui of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA); and Haruki Madarame, 63, head of the Nuclear Safety Commission.
"What is going on?" Kan asked. Nobody had an answer. "Well then, gather whatever information you can," he ordered. "And get on with it as soon as possible."
Some hurried to the crisis management center in the basement of the prime minister's office. Others moved to the parlor next to Kan's office and started making calls on their cellphones.
In Fukushima Prefecture, meanwhile, helicopters and buses were taking people out of the evacuation zone, designated on March 12, within a 20-kilometer radius from the crippled nuclear plant. These people were mostly residents of nursing homes for the elderly and long-term inpatients at local hospitals, who could not evacuate on their own. Many residents were fleeing the prefecture.
SPEEDI, the operation of which was overseen by the science and technology ministry, was deemed the most helpful tool for planning the evacuation of citizens. The system began predicting the dispersion of radiation from day one.
From the Nuclear Safety Technology Center, the system continued to stream hourly updates to the science and technology ministry and the Nuclear Safety Commission. The same data also reached U.S. Forces Japan via the Foreign Ministry. And the NISA had the Nuclear Safety Technology Center send modified SPEEDI predictions after including the data provided by the agency in calculations.
Yet, the bureaucrats who were using SPEEDI failed to inform the prime minister's office of the existence of this system. They never advised Kan to take advantage of SPEEDI, even though Kan was often in the same room with senior officials of the NISA and the Nuclear Safety Commission.
Lacking its own source of information, the prime minister's office was reduced to scurrying about to confirm news updates on television.
Two whiteboards were set up in the parlor adjacent to Kan's office for sharing information, but there was little new information to share.
While Kan's staffers were scrambling to gather information, an abnormal situation was developing at the No. 2 reactor as a result of the explosion at the adjoining No. 3 reactor building.
The worst nuclear crisis in the nation's history was in the making, without the knowledge of the prime minister and his team.
'WE DON'T HAVE ENOUGH WEAPONS'
The March 14 explosion at the No. 3 reactor building destroyed the electrical system for opening the valves of the No. 2 reactor, causing the containment vessel's decompression valves to remain shut.
This meant that the pressure would keep building and the nuclear reactor itself could blow. And that, in turn, would set off a nuclear catastrophe of a magnitude comparable with Chernobyl's.
The prime minister's office first became aware of the abnormality inside the No. 2 reactor around 4 p.m. on March 14.
Reports on the conditions of the reactor, prepared by Tokyo Electric Power Co., were being faxed to Kan's office. Copies of the faxed messages were placed on a table in the parlor adjoining the office, where the pile grew higher with the passing of time.
Staying put in the parlor were Yasui of the NISA and Madarame of the Nuclear Safety Commission. They were joined from time to time by industry minister Kaieda, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Fukuyama and special adviser Terada, among others.
The faxed reports provided hourly water level and pressure readings inside the reactor. The water level kept dropping, which was bad news for the fuel rods that must remain submerged.
Around 4 p.m., someone muttered, "I am afraid the fuel rods are exposed."
His fear became reality at 6:22 p.m, when the fuel rods became fully exposed.
With the reactor being heated with no water inside, it was only a matter of time before the fuel rods started to melt, forming holes through which melted fuel leak. Fire trucks began pumping water into the reactor, but they eventually ran out of gas. Refueling them to resume the pumping became an urgent priority.
But bad news reached the prime minister's office after 8 p.m; the reactor's internal pressure had risen so high that water could no longer be pumped into it.
Hearing this in his office, Kan picked up his cellphone and spoke directly to Masao Yoshida, 56, chief of the Fukushima No. 1 power plant.
"We can still keep trying," Yoshida told Kan. "But we don't have enough weapons. If only we could get hold of pumps that would work despite the pressure in the reactor being so high."
Yoshida had mentioned the same thing earlier to Goshi Hosono, 40, another special adviser to the prime minister.
In the meantime, Masataka Shimizu, 67, president of TEPCO, was trying frantically to get hold of Kaieda. Shimizu kept calling him over and over in vain.
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