When the evacuation of residents within 3 kilometers of the Fukushima No. 1 plant was announced at 9:23 p.m. on March 11, there were still no prospects of restoring power to the plant by means of vehicle-mounted generators.
The buildup of steam pressure inside the reactor was such that it required tremendous force to pump water into it.
The plant chief Yoshida had already informed the prime minister's office via TEPCO that the plant's cooling system could be restored if he could get hold of vehicle-mounted generators to power high-pressure pumps.
Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Fukuyama and Terada, special adviser to the prime minister, busied themselves arranging for police vehicles to escort vehicle-mounted generators to Fukushima.
Fukuyama scurried back-and-forth between the room on the mezzanine level in the basement and the Kan's office on the fifth floor to gather information, while Terada remained glued to his post in the office.
While a fleet of vehicle-mounted generators was being hastily put together, Prime Minister Kan jotted down every development in his notebook. According to his memo, TEPCO was in a position to provide 20 high-voltage units while the Kahiwazaki-Kariwa plant ordered a battery, which would take a day to replace.
Those generators weighed eight tons each, and Kan considered transporting them on Self-Defense Force helicopters. He asked an aide dispatched from the Defense Ministry, "Can that be done?" But when the aide was given the generators' specifications, he replied, "No, sir. Too heavy."
Kan then turned to U.S. Forces Japan for assistance, but it could not help either.
The possibility of a meltdown grew real.
According to notes taken by Fukuyama that night, it was someone from either TEPCO or NISA who explained the situation as follows: "Emergency diesel generators are needed to cool the reactor, but they have been damaged by the tsunami. A further rise in the temperature inside the reactor could trigger a meltdown in 10 hours. The situation is extremely grave."
A vehicle-mounted generator of the Tohoku Electric Power Co. arrived at the Fukushima No. 1 plant before 11 p.m. It was followed by three more units from the SDF.
Fukuyama, who was in the room on the mezzanine level in the basement at the time, did not know of the generators' arrival. But Terada did, and whooped with joy.
At the Fukushima plant, however, workers were having trouble laying power transmission cables between the generators and the plant. The area was still being jolted by strong aftershocks, which caused frequent disruptions to the work. And to make matters worse, most communication devices were useless, causing delays in the conveyance of information to the on-site response center at the plant.
At 10:44 p.m., a message from the NISA reached Kan, who was in the room on the mezzanine. It was about the No. 2 reactor.
The message was that a meltdown could begin in two hours.
DECISION TO VENT NO. 1 REACTOR
Around 12:15 a.m. on March 12, Prime Minister Kan sat down to a teleconference with U.S. President Barack Obama. Kan thanked the president profusely for his kind words of sympathy and support. "I am really encouraged by your words."
After the teleconference, Kan went to the "mezzanine room" in the basement of the prime minister's office to deal with a new crisis that had developed shortly before his conversation with Obama; there were signs of an abnormal rise in pressure inside the containment vessel of the No. 1 reactor--not the No. 2 unit where the NISA had predicted a risk of meltdown.
Nine minutes before the teleconference started, at 12:06 a.m., Yoshida, chief of the Fukushima No. 1 plant, ordered his staff to start preparations for venting the No. 1 reactor.
As venting would release radioactive substances along with high-pressure steam, local residents would have to be evacuated. Whether to proceed with it or not was a tough call, and Kan and his emergency response team began debating the issue at 12:57 a.m.
According to notes taken at the time by Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Fukuyama, the team was informed by NISA's Hiraoka and Madarame of the Nuclear Safety Commission that the water level in the No. 1 reactor were still about one meter above the fuel rods. Since this meant that the reactor was still safe from a core meltdown, the amount of radiation released through venting should not be too great. The team concluded then that there was no need to expand the evacuation zone.
Fukuyama's notes say, "it was decided to vent the No. 1 reactor."
Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano, industry minister Kaieda, and TEPCO fellow Takekuro were among the people present when the decision was reached to start venting the No. 1 reactor at around 3 a.m. The time was Takekuro's idea, who advised the team that the preparations would take about two hours.
The decision made, Kan returned to his office on the fifth floor. Kaieda left for the industry ministry, where he would hold a news conference.
Edano was coming out of the mezzanine room when Fukuyama stopped him and said, "Should radiation start spilling out of the No. 1 reactor at the ungodly hour (of 3 in the morning), that may well panic the entire nation, not only Fukushima (Prefecture). We can't withhold the announcement until daybreak. The people would think we tried to cover it up."
Edano agreed. "Let's give a news conference of our own (while Kaieda is giving his)," he said.
At 3:06 a.m., a joint news conference by Kaieda and Akio Komori, 59, TEPCO managing director, began at the industry ministry. Upon confirming this, Edano proceeded to his own news conference at the prime minister's office.
FUKUYAMA THROWS A TANTRUM
At 3:12 a.m. on March 12, Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano held a news conference at the prime minister's office on venting the No. 1 reactor to prevent the reactor from blowing up. It was an attempt Japan had never experienced before.
He began, "We have been informed by TEPCO that it is necessary to relieve pressure in the No. 1 reactor containment vessel in order to secure its structural soundness. Taking this step is unavoidable to secure safety. ..."
Six minutes earlier, another news conference of the same nature had started at the industry ministry with Kaieda and TEPCO Managing Director Komori.
Asked by a reporter if the venting was imminent, Komori replied in the affirmative, "We are all set to go. It could start even as we speak."
It was the shared belief of Prime Minister Kan and his nuclear emergency response team that venting the reactor should at least avert an explosion and that the reactor cooling system would be back in operation once vehicle-mounted generators were in place at the Fukushima No. 1 plant.
Having seen the arrangements to deploy vehicle-mounted generators completed, Kan instructed that plans should be made for his inspection tour of the crippled nuclear plant. Terada, special adviser to the prime minister, wore sandals on his bare feet as he drew up Kan's itinerary.
At 3:59 a.m., a 6.7-magnitude earthquake struck. The epicenter was in northern Nagano Prefecture. Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Fukuyama hurried from the "mezzanine room" to the crisis management center in the basement.
In a voice tinged with urgency, he asked a senior official of the Japan Meteorological Agency, "Is this an aftershock of the Tohoku quake, or is this something entirely different?" His voice boomed throughout the crisis management center on the public-address system.
Fukuyama dropped what he was doing on the nuclear crisis and started gathering information on the Nagano temblor. The crisis management center was thrown into confusion.
When it was confirmed that there were no fatalities, Fukuyama got back to dealing with the nuclear crisis. Returning to the mezzanine room, he found Hiraoka of the NISA, Madarame of the Nuclear Safety Commission, and TEPCO fellow Takekuro.
"Has the venting begun?" Fukuyama asked.
The answer was in the negative.
Fukuyama shouted in anger, "Why on earth not? It was you who said venting should start around 3! The chief Cabinet secretary has already told the reporters (that it would start around 3). Now he's lied to the nation, that's what! Isn't the reactor going to blow if it's not vented? Is it all right (if the venting is delayed)?"
Prime Minister Kan had yet to be informed of this situation.
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