After the meeting at the prime minister's office in the evening of March 12, TEPCO fellow Takekuro phoned Yoshida, chief of the Fukushima No. 1 plant.
"On the matter of pumping seawater into the No. 1 reactor, the prime minister is concerned about a possible chain reaction, among other things," Takekuro began. "It's vital that we win the prime minister's understanding."
"But we've already begun pumping," Yoshida informed him.
"Then, please stop it," Takekuro said. "The matter is still under discussion at the prime minister's office."
Yoshida relayed the exchange to TEPCO head office, where senior executives concurred that they wouldn't be able to avoid discontinuing the task.
But Yoshida kept up the pumping operation regardless, according to an interim report submitted in December 2011 by the government's investigation committee on the Fukushima nuclear accident.
None of what went on within TEPCO that day was communicated to the prime minister's office.
At 7:35 p.m., Hosono, special adviser to the prime minister, reported to Prime Minister Kan that the No. 1 reactor was finally ready for the injection of seawater.
Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Fukuyama wrote in his notebook, "Pump works, piping good."
In short, Kan and his team did not know at that time that pumping had already started at the No. 1 reactor.
Those developments later resulted in Kan being criticized by opposition parties for "stopping" the pumping operation.
Kan noted in retrospect, "Switching from fresh water to seawater had nothing to do with a chain reaction. This must have been obvious to Takekuro because he is an engineer. And yet, the switch to seawater somehow got linked to a chain reaction, and I ended up being criticized for stopping the pumping operation. This defies my understanding."
When Hosono reported that the No. 1 reactor was ready for pumping, he also informed Kan and his team that the explosion at the No. 1 reactor had not occurred in the containment vessel. "The radiation level had spiked right after the explosion, but began to drop rapidly at 4:15 p.m.," Hosono reported. "It was the No. 1 reactor building, not the containment vessel, that blew."
Everyone in the room looked relieved, and the key members of Kan's team resumed their meeting.
At 7:55 p.m., Kan instructed industry ministry Kaieda to order the injection of seawater into the No. 1 reactor. Kan was informed later that the operation had begun.
Shortly after, Hibino, vice president of the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, arrived at the prime minister's office and was shown into Kan's office.
Kan griped to his old school friend, "I need to know what the next step I can take, but nobody is giving me any ideas or suggestions. Would you sit with me while I listen to what TEPCO, the NISA and the Nuclear Safety Commission have to say?"
'CAN'T YOU STICK A BAMBOO POLE OR SOMETHING INTO THE VALVE?'
Around 10 p.m. on March 12, Prime Minister Kan sent for three nuclear experts: Kukita, acting chair of the Nuclear Safety Commission; NISA Vice Director-General Hiraoka and Kawamata, general manager of TEPCO's Nuclear Quality & Safety Management Department.
Hibino, vice president of Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology and Kan's old friend, also sat in at the meeting in Kan's office.
Kan repeatedly asked the three experts, "A hydrogen explosion has not yet occurred at the No. 2 and No. 3 reactors. Shouldn't we start venting them and injecting cooling water?" Hibino agreed with Kan.
Earlier that day, at 5:30 p.m., Yoshida, chief of the Fukushima No. 1 plant, instructed his staff to prepare for venting. But the explosion at the No. 1 reactor building had damaged the vehicle-mounted power generators and cables for this operation, rendering the immediate execution of venting impossible.
What to do next? The three experts had no advice for the prime minister.
After the meeting ended past 11 p.m., Hibino said to Kan, "Toshiba Corp. and Hitachi Ltd. are the makers of the reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 plant. They know the reactors better than TEPCO and the NISA."
"You're right," Kan said, and immediately instructed his aides to contact Toshiba and Hitachi.
Around 11:30 p.m., Hibino was chauffeured to a hotel near the prime minister's office, instead of his home. He thought that Kan expected him back at Kan’s office the next morning.
When March 13 dawned, there was still no change in the situation. The No. 2 and No. 3 reactors had yet to be vented, and tensions rose at the prime minister's office.
Shortly after Hibino arrived at Kan's office in the morning, a grim-faced Hosono, special adviser to the prime minister, came in. He handed Kan an A4-size sheet of paper.
Hibino also took a look at it. Written on it was the prediction that if the reactors remain unvented, they would become overheated and cause core meltdowns.
Kan stepped out of his office and went into the adjoning parlor, with Hibino in tow, to discuss this grim possibility with the key members of his team.
The room was in chaos. There were haunted, dazed expressions on some faces. Judging that they were in no state to discuss the situation objectively, Kan returned to his office.
At 9:24 a.m., drops in pressure inside the No. 3 reactor were confirmed. Hosono came into the office and reported, "The reactor has been vented successfully." Hibino let out a whoop and clapped.
But the venting valve would shut again.
Back to square one, Hosono asked a TEPCO executive who was present, "Can't you stick a bamboo pole or something into the valve to keep it open?"
The executive replied, "I can tell you with absolute certainty that the valve will open again. And there are multiple valves. They can't possibly all fail at once."
At 11:08 a.m., Toshiba President Norio Sasaki, 62, arrived at the prime minister's office.
TEPCO PRESIDENT REFUSES TO COMMENT
Shortly after 11 a.m. on March 13, Toshiba President Sasaki met with Prime Minister Kan in his office. Hibino, Kan's old school friend, sat in the meeting.
"There is a chance of both the No. 2 and No. 3 reactors exploding," Sasaki told Kan.
"Couldn't we drill holes in the ceiling of the reactor buildings to let hydrogen escape?" Kan asked.
Sasaki replied, "Sparks from the drill could set off an explosion. We should use a water jet cutter instead."
Preparations for water-jet cutting were completed on March 14, but not soon enough to prevent the explosion at the No. 3 reactor building that day.
Hibino recalled his impression of what went on in the prime minister's office during the time he was there: "The organizations that were supposed to be advising the prime minister did not function as they should, because the individuals in charge lacked a sense of responsibility as parties directly involved. As a result, the organizations put their own interests above all. Also, they didn't have people who were knowledgeable enough in positions of responsibility."
The Asahi Shimbun tried to reach TEPCO President Shimizu for comment. But a request for an interview, placed through Hasegawa, manager of TEPCO’s Corporate Communications Department, was turned down.
What the reporter wanted to ask Shimizu was this: What, exactly, was the nature of the request TEPCO made to the prime minister's office? Was it for a "full withdrawal" from the Fukushima No. 1 plant, or a "temporary evacuation of non-essential staff?"
Shimizu has reportedly told those close to him, "I will never again speak to anyone of the past."
As chronicled earlier in this series, Shimizu was desperate at one time to talk to industry minister Kaieda about TEPCO's withdrawal from the crippled plant. But Ito, deputy chief Cabinet secretary for crisis management, told Kan in his office around 3 a.m. on March 15, "We must ask TEPCO to hold down the fort, even if they have to put together a suicide squad." Kan agreed, stressing he would never allow TEPCO to abandon the plant.
When Shimizu was summoned to the prime minister's office later, he immediately agreed not to withdraw. This made Ito suspicious, given how insistent TEPCO had been with its request for withdrawal. In fact, before 3 a.m. that day, a senior TEPCO official had made it quite clear to Ito in the parlor adjoining Kan's office that the utility intended to abandon the plant.
Ito remembers the exchange vividly to this day.
Ito: "If you withdraw from the Fukushima No. 1 plant, what's going to become of the reactors Nos. 1 through 4?"
Official: "We have no choice but to abandon them."
Ito: "What about the No. 5 and No. 6 reactors?"
Official: "They'll have to be abandoned, too. They will eventually become uncontrollable."
Ito: "What about the Fukushima No. 2 plant?"
Official: "We'll eventually have to abandon that, too."
However, an interim report by the government's investigation committee on the Fukushima nuclear accident concluded that the people at the prime minister's office had "misinterpreted" TEPCO's intentions concerning its considered withdrawal from the Fukushima No. 1 plant.
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