At 7:12 a.m. on March 12, the SDF helicopter carrying Prime Minister Kan and his entourage of 12 arrived at the Fukushima No. 1 plant.
Kan, clad in disaster-response duds and sneakers, was greeted by TEPCO Executive Vice President Sakae Muto, 61, and Motohisa Ikeda, 71, senior vice minister of the ministry of trade and industry who headed the off-site emergency response center. They all boarded a minibus.
Kan sat in a window seat behind the driver. When Muto sat next to him, Kan lashed out at him, "Why haven't you started venting (the No. 1 reactor)? Get going with it! Just do it!"
Kan's voice was so loud and angry that Terada, special adviser to the prime minister, could not help flinching from four rows behind.
Muto said something, but Terada could not catch it. "It was just an incoherent mumble," he recalled. Kan, too, would describe it as such.
Tadashi Tsumura, a Kyodo News reporter representing the Kantei Kisha Club (press club of the prime minister's office), was sitting in the back of the minibus. Terada turned to him with a concerned look and said, "I hope you won't write about the prime minister losing it, will you?"
Kan made no attempt to control his anger.
He recalled, "The fate of our nation hinged on the venting, but TEPCO was being hopelessly wishy-washy. How could I not scream and shout in frustration?"
That was one of the rare episodes of Kan's outbursts since March 11, but it stuck and amplified his image as "the ranting and raving prime minister."
But Kan was not the only one who was losing it. Industry minister Kaieda, who remained in the mezzanine room of the prime minister's office, was also ranting and raving.
He screamed in fury at TEPCO fellow Takekuro, "Why can't you vent the reactor? I'm ordering you to do it! It's an order, do you hear?!"
At 6:50 a.m., while Kan was still in the air, Kaieda invoked the nuclear reactor regulation law and issued an order to vent the No. 1 and No. 2 reactors. Nobody at the prime minister's office was getting any satisfactory explanation of why the venting had not started as scheduled. The fear of an explosion was growing increasingly real.
When the minibus carrying Kan and his party arrived at the plant's earthquake-proof wing where the on-site response headquarters was located, they were made to join a line of workers measuring radiation.
The line hardly moved, and Kan sensed something was not right. "We don't have any time for this!" he yelled, and left the line. He headed straight for the conference room on the second floor.
The moment he stepped into the building, he gasped.
'EVEN IF WE HAVE TO SEND IN A SUICIDE SQUAD'
At around 7:20 a.m. on March 12, Prime Minister Kan stepped into the earthquake-proof wing of the Fukushima No. 1 plant.
What met his eyes took his breath away.
The corridor was so crammed with workers that Kan and his entourage had to squeeze their way through. Some were sleeping like logs, their chests bare.
More men lined the staircase leading to the second floor. Dripping with sweat, they stood leaning against the walls, eyes closed or staring vacantly into space.
Elbowing his way up, Kan thought: "This is like a field hospital."
Strangely, there was no one in the room he had been directed to. Tsumura, the embedded Kyodo News reporter, followed him into the room. Noticing his presence, Kan said sharply, "You shouldn't be here. Leave."
After Tsumura left, plant chief Yoshida entered the room. Kan had not met him before.
Muto, TEPCO executive vice president, arrived shortly later and stood by Yoshida. The two men started briefing Kan on the situation, with a map of the plant spread out on a table.
"We will decide within an hour whether to vent the No. 1 reactor manually," Muto said. "But if we are to power-vent the reactor as planned, it will be about four hours before we can start."
Manual venting would require workers to enter the high-radiation reactor building to open the steam pipeline valve.
"Four hours? We can't wait that long! Do it sooner!" Kan thundered.
Terada, special adviser to the prime minister, felt his irritation rise at TEPCO's "incredible slowness to act."
A medical officer in the entourage advised Terada, "Given the high radiation level here, we shouldn't stay too long." Terada tried to relay the advice to Kan, but the prime minister was so worked up that Terada could not bring himself to butt in.
Then Yoshida spoke up. "We will definitely vent the reactor," he said firmly. "We'll do it even if we have to send in a suicide squad."
Kan would later recall, "I knew right then that Yoshida was someone I could work with."
When the meeting ended and Terada stepped out of the room, Ikeda, senior vice industry minister, tapped him on the shoulder and said, "Do try to calm down the prime minister."
Terada's rejoinder was, "He's better than usual."
VENTING FINALLY BEGINS, BUT ...
While Prime Minister Kan was at the Fukushima No. 1 plant on the morning of March 12, the Fukushima No. 2 plant also became unable to control pressure in its reactors.
A state of emergency was declared at 7:45 a.m. A 3-kilometer-radius evacuation zone was set, while people within a 3- to 10-kilometer radius were instructed to stay indoors.
The nuclear crisis was spreading in all directions.
At 8:29 a.m., TEPCO reported to the NISA that venting would begin at the No. 1 reactor of the Fukushima No. 1 plant at around 9 o'clock.
Leaving the Fukushima No. 1 plant, Kan and his entourage took an aerial survey of the quake-and-tsunami-devastated Miyagi Prefecture and were on their way back at 9:19 a.m.
Shortly before that, at 9:04 a.m., the attempts for venting actually began at the No. 1 reactor. For the first time in Japan, radioactive substances were intentionally released from a nuclear reactor.
As workers assigned to manually open the steam pipeline valve of the reactor would be exposed to radiation, three two-man teams were formed to minimize the amount of exposure per worker. Clad in fireproof clothing and carrying torches, the first team ventured into the high-radiation, pitch-black reactor unit, with no means of communication with the outside.
The team opened the valve 25 percent as planned and returned to the central control room.
When the second team was on their way to the reactor unit, their dosimeter beeped to signify that the radiation level had topped 90 millisieverts. The team turned back. It was decided then that the task should be discontinued.
Around 10 a.m., TEPCO President Shimizu returned to the utility's Tokyo head office from his business trip in the Kansai region. According to The Mainichi Shimbun, Shimizu and his wife were sightseeing at the ancient ruins of Heijokyo palace in Nara Prefecture when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck.
Around the time Shimizu arrived at TEPCO's head office, attempts were being made at the Fukushima No. 1 plant to open the valve by remote control from the central control room.
One of the workers who had opened the valve manually was found to have been exposed to more than 100 millisieverts of radiation.
At 10:47 a.m., Kan arrived at the prime minister's office.
Kan, industry minister Kaieda and other key members of the nuclear emergency response team decided to move out of the mezzanine room in the basement where nobody could use their cellphone. From that afternoon, Kan's office and the adjoining parlor on the fifth floor became the team's headquarters.
At 2:30 p.m., TEPCO confirmed that the pressure inside the No. 1 reactor had dropped. This was thought to indicate that the reactor had been successfully vented.
The "good news" was communicated to the prime minister's office, and the key members of Kan's team began to assemble on the fifth floor. Kan himself attended a meeting with opposition party leaders at 3 p.m.
It was during this meeting that an explosion ocurred at the No. 1 reactor building.
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