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May 6, 2011 5:52 pm
Ryota Takakura was packing low-level radioactive waste into drums when the ground started shaking. It was 2.46pm on March 11, and the biggest earthquake ever recorded in Japan was rippling along the country’s north-east coast. It buckled roads, toppled electricity pylons and rattled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, the sprawling six-reactor facility where Takakura worked doing basic maintenance. As the ground heaved, he and a group of colleagues clustered around a pillar in the plant’s waste disposal building, clutching each other to stay on their feet. Then the lights went out, leaving them in pitch darkness amid the groans of the building.
When Takakura took the job at Daiichi three months before, he worried it might be dangerous. Such doubts were soon “brainwashed” out of him by plant trainers, he jokes. Now they roared back. “I thought that an earthquake like this,” he says, “might cause an explosion.”
His instincts were right: the tremor had triggered what would become the world’s worst nuclear accident in 25 years. Yet to the plant’s safety officials, the situation looked manageable. The three reactors in operation when the quake hit had shut down as designed: neutron-absorbing control rods sprung up automatically into their cores, halting nuclear fission. While the local power grid had been knocked out, the plant had its own generators to keep vital systems working. What they did not yet realise was that the offshore earthquake had unleashed a greater menace. Over the grey horizon, a vast pulse of water was racing toward the row of reactors, which sat, suddenly vulnerable, on a shelf of land between low hills and the sea.
Japan has never been an ideal place to build a nuclear power plant. Perched on the seismic “Ring of Fire” that runs around the Pacific Ocean, even its most stable areas are never far from an earthquake fault, and most of its coasts have been battered at some point or other by tsunamis. Ironically, geology has also driven Japan’s embrace of atomic power. With no significant reserves of fossil fuel, it must import nearly all its energy – a matter of national insecurity since before the second world war. The oil shocks of the early 1970s, when crude prices soared, reinforced a determination to diversify supply. When the quake hit, 54 commercial reactors across Japan accounted for nearly 30 per cent of the country’s electricity generation.
Everyone at Fukushima Daiichi felt the terrible force of the earthquake, but few witnessed the arrival of the massive tsunami about 50 minutes later. Lower-tier workers like Takakura had fled or were stuck in a traffic jam at the plant’s main gate, more than a kilometre inland. Managers and technicians were gathered in a windowless crisis centre – where they would end up surrounded by water they could not see.
The waves left plenty of evidence of their passing, however. They swept over the plant’s 5.5m-high concrete sea wall, breaking it in places, then surged across a narrow seafront road and crashed into buildings containing turbines and, behind them, the reactors. External pipes were ripped from walls, workers’ cars were washed away and a tanker truck knocked on its side. The tsunami reached more than 14m above sea level – roughly the height of a five-storey building – and the four lowest-lying reactor buildings were surrounded by swirling seawater 4-5m deep.
One area in particular suffered critical damage: a row of diesel generators located between the turbine buildings and the sea. These were the plant’s back-up power supply, but now they were choked with seawater. Only one still worked, and it was not enough: lights and instruments flicked off in the plant’s control rooms, and core cooling systems stopped dead. Even after a reactor’s nuclear chain reaction is halted, its uranium fuel gives off enough heat to keep the water inside its central chamber boiling. This creates steam, and steam creates pressure inside the vessel. If left uncooled, the vessel will eventually rupture – releasing radiation and uranium outside the chamber. A little more bad luck, and the spilled fuel can achieve “re-criticality” – a new, and uncontrolled, fit of nuclear fission.
With the back-up generators disabled, engineers were down to their final fail-safes for cooling the reactors: a heat-exchanging condenser and pressurised water-injection tanks. Both would only work for a few hours.
A few minutes after the quake, Goshi Hosono, deputy secretary general of the Democratic party and a senior aide to Japan’s prime minister, arrived at his boss’s elegant official residence in Tokyo. The challenge of responding to the crisis fell to an inexperienced government that just hours before had appeared to be teetering. Public support for Prime Minister Naoto Kan was low, sections of his ruling Democratic party were in revolt, and a new scandal had broken that morning over alleged political donations from a foreign resident – a relatively minor violation, but one that had forced out the foreign minister the week before. After winning power for the first time in September 2009, the Democrats’ grip on it looked shaky.
The need to oversee a vast relief operation for Japan’s tsunami-devastated coast would have been taxing enough, even without the atomic crisis. “From about 4pm we were having to fight on two fronts,” says Hosono, a 39-year-old Democratic rising star who was quickly named the prime minister’s nuclear point man. The task was made even more difficult by the Japanese authorities’ long-standing assumption that total power loss at an atomic plant was virtually impossible. “The situation was not one that could be resolved by following a manual,” Hosono says.
Fukushima Daiichi’s fate was foreseen by one person, however, now glued to a television screen in his office just down the street from the prime minister’s residence. Hidekatsu Yoshii, a member of parliament from the Japanese Communist party, had for years been warning that Japan’s nuclear plants were more vulnerable to natural disasters than officials and regulators assumed. He reckoned Daiichi’s final back-up cooling systems could last seven or eight hours. “From 5 or 6pm I was watching the clock.”
Yoshii was born during the war and studied nuclear engineering at Kyoto University – inspired by the idea that the atomic power that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki could be put to peaceful use. But the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island in the US, the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and a series of smaller incidents in Japan convinced him that the industry’s current level of technology was unsafe. Five years ago, he had outlined in parliamentary debate how a combination of earthquake and tsunami could knock out a Japanese atomic station’s cooling systems. He was concerned less about flooding than the risk that water intakes might be left exposed when the sea drew back before a tsunami’s arrival. Still, his insistence that the government needed to prepare for catastrophic cooling failure was prescient. Reactor overheating could cause steam or hydrogen explosions, he warned. “It is essential to have proper countermeasures in place for something that could be close to a Chernobyl.”
These warnings fell on deaf ears, as did similar ones from academic researchers and activists. Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), operator of Fukushima Daiichi, said its plants were designed to withstand the “largest conceivable earthquake” – even after the official view of what was conceivable was undermined by new research. In recent years, for instance, geologists sifting soils along the north-eastern coast had found evidence that a huge tsunami had hit the area before, depositing silt 3km or more inland. The findings drew renewed attention to a historical account of a disastrous inundation in the year 869. “Plains and highways were turned into an expanse of sea,” it reads, chiming eerily with experiences of coastal residents on March 11. “Nothing was left of property or the produce of the fields.”
Nuclear sceptics say there were many reasons officials refused to listen to their warnings – from the high cost of upgrading atomic plants to a defensive mindset that lumped constructive critics with outright abolitionists. Some officials at the economy and industry ministry – which led Japan’s embrace of nuclear power – now acknowledge that blanket promises that plants were invulnerable made it difficult to improve their defences, because changing anything meant acknowledging some level of danger. “Whatever happened, the plants were always declared safe enough to operate,” says one bureaucrat who now regrets the ministry’s simplistic approach. “It was all lies.”
As the hours ticked by at the plant, attempts to get electricity to the reactors were going nowhere. Tepco scrambled to find a generator truck, but it took hours to arrive – and was then found to be useless because its plugs were incompatible with those of the plant. Soon the back-up condenser at reactor No 1 failed. By 1.20am, pressure in the reactor’s innermost containment vessel exceeded its threshold; by 2.30am, it had nearly doubled again.
Now, Tepco and the government faced a wrenching decision. To prevent the core from bursting, technicians needed to let some of the radioactive steam inside escape into the atmosphere – in effect, to engineer a small radiation leak in the hopes of preventing a bigger one. Goshi Hosono says Tepco executives acknowledged venting was necessary. Yet the procedure was not completed until after 10am on Saturday, nine hours after reactor pressure rose beyond safety limits. Tepco says it moved as fast as it could: jammed valves around the core had to be opened by hand, in the dark, amid high radiation levels that prevented workers from staying at their tasks for more than a few minutes at a time. Still, Hosono says he felt Tepco was “vacillating” – something he blames on its bureaucratic culture. “Tepco’s job is to deliver a constant supply of electricity – extremely routine work,” he says. “It’s a company for stable times.”
Indeed, Hosono was not the only one to question Tepco’s fitness in a crisis. Public trust in the utility was low after years of scandals, many involving forged or altered safety data. It did not help that the company’s president, Masataka Shimizu, was to crumble under the strain of events. A few days after the clash over venting – and following a jarring confrontation with the prime minister, in which Kan demanded to know “what the hell was going on” – he stopped attending meetings, and spent five days in virtual seclusion in his office. In a telling display of Tepco’s attitude toward disclosure, the company did not reveal his incapacity for more than a week.
In venting the reactors, Tepco and the government knew they would be held responsible for a radiation leak, however limited. But worse was to come. Hydrogen was seeping from the No 1 reactor’s core and mingling with oxygen in the air to form a combustible gaseous cocktail. At 3.36pm on Saturday afternoon, it exploded, and millions of television viewers saw the gut-wrenching sight of a nuclear reactor building flying apart in a cloud of dust and debris. Tepco’s struggle to control the plant was now shockingly exposed, and for two nauseating hours the world waited for an explanation. Had the reactor’s core exploded? Was Fukushima another Chernobyl? Out of confusion or a fear of spreading panic – and despite the clear footage on TV – Tepco headquarters would not even confirm which area of the plant had been damaged – a reactor or a less crucial building. Yukio Edano, the usually unflappable chief government spokesman, was pale and sweating at a brief news conference, where he could only parrot Tepco’s equivocations.
Finally, at 5.45pm, Edano reappeared – the colour back in his face – to explain that the core was intact. The roof and upper walls of the building had been wrecked, but there was no massive radiation release. The crisis was not yet a catastrophe.
Outside the plant, however, the inadequacy of official disaster preparations had already been laid bare. Kazuma Yokota, a nuclear safety inspector based at Fukushima Daiichi, had moved quickly after the quake to a pre-prepared emergency centre in a nearby village, where he was meant to direct any necessary evacuations. But it took hours to get the centre’s generator working, and even then its core communication systems did not work. Yokota only found out about the first evacuation orders from television reports.
The result of such setbacks was widespread confusion. Yoshitada Unuma lived just 2km from the plant, working at a nearby motor parts factory and helping run the family farm. Confident in Fukushima Daiichi’s stout construction and multiple safety systems, he dismissed early talk of radiation even when told, on the night of March 11, to move with his wife and daughter to a school a little further from the plant. But when, the next day, anxious local officials told the evacuees to move westward from the plant as quickly as they could, Unuma felt cold fear. “It was panic,” he says. “All we could think of was to flee.”
Instead of the orderly evacuation by bus called for in emergency drills, residents had to make their own way by car along jammed roads. Unuma and his family drove 30km until they saw a sign for a refugee centre that had space. “We thought we’d be able to go home after a couple of days or so, but the news just got worse and worse,” he says.
By Monday, the plant’s problems were escalating again. Technicians were venting steam from the three problem reactors and using fire hoses to inject cooling seawater into their cores. But late in the morning, the building housing reactor No 3 blew apart, in an even larger hydrogen blast than the one at unit No 1 two days earlier. A few hours later, Tepco reported problems with a new part of the station – a storage tank for used uranium fuel.
All six Fukushima reactors had lightly protected “spent fuel pools” next to their reactors. Like the cores, the pools need circulating water to stay cool, and without it, the pool at unit No 4 was getting dangerously hot. If the water inside boiled away, the uranium rods would be exposed to the air, heat up faster and finally melt – releasing radioactive particles and explosive hydrogen.
The No 4 pool was particularly vulnerable because it contained more and hotter fuel than any other at the plant. Its reactor had been off-line for maintenance, and the still-fresh uranium in its core had been put in the tank with hundreds of older, cooler fuel rods – kept there in part because of a shortage of long-term disposal capacity. When the power failed, 1,331 rods were packed inside. On Monday night the water reached boiling point, and on Tuesday morning fire broke out in the pool.
Meanwhile, at the No 2 reactor, cooling efforts had flagged and the fuel inside was believed to have partially melted. Early on Tuesday an explosion – probably caused by hydrogen – damaged a water tank that was part of the reactor’s “primary containment” – the most heavily protected zone around the core. These setbacks caused by far the biggest leak of radiation of the crisis – for several hours, contamination is believed to have poured out at rates 10,000 times higher than would be detected a few weeks later – and forced Tepco to pull out of the plant most of the 800 workers who had been battling the emergency. For a few hours, only a few dozen essential staff were left – a group that would be celebrated worldwide as the “Fukushima 50”. By the next day, their number had swelled to more than 300, roughly where it would stay. Respect for their bravery was only enhanced by reports of their grim conditions: snatched sleep in radiation masks on lead-lined floors, shared blankets and meagre rations of tinned food. To keep the emergency effort going, regulators raised the limit for radiation exposure among workers from 100 millisieverts – the level at which long-term cancer risk increases detectably – to 250.
The rapid rise in radiation levels spread fear throughout Japan and beyond. At the emergency centre near the plant, Yokota, the safety inspector, was forced to don a full-face mask, making it even harder to use a back-up satellite phone whose transmissions are difficult to hear at the best of times. Foreign residents fled Tokyo, 240km away, amid a flurry of embassy travel warnings. The US recommended its citizens stay at least 80km from Fukushima Daiichi – four times further than Japan’s 20km evacuation zone. In China, rumours that contaminated seawater might ruin the salt-making industry led to panic-buying. Some western media coverage reached hyperbolic heights: one CNN announcer insisted days later – in spite of the objections of her better-informed weatherman – that a “radioactive cloud” was heading for the US.
At the plant, workers launched a frantic effort to deliver water to the reactors’ overheating spent-fuel pools. Their first target was the tank at reactor No 3. The hydrogen blast that wrecked its building a day earlier had created an avenue to deliver coolant – through its now open roof. On Wednesday afternoon, military helicopters scooped buckets of water from the sea and flew towards the reactor, only to be forced back by high radiation levels. They got closer the next morning – their undersides now plated with lead – but most of the water they dropped scattered in the wind. As evening approached, military fire trucks at last arrived from airbases around the country. Equipped with high-pressure hoses and steel shielding to fight jet-fuel blazes, they began sending streams of water into the reactor building. Steam surged up from within, signalling the water was reaching its target.
With their improvised systems to pump seawater into the reactors and spray the fuel pools, workers had prevented the crisis from spiralling further out of control. Yet the emergency effort created its own problems. Two weeks after the tsunami, thousands of tonnes of highly radioactive water were found to have flooded the plant’s basements and service tunnels, and some was leaking into the sea. Frantic efforts to plug the leak began, using everything from newspapers to nappy-like absorbent cloth. Technicians eventually succeeded by filling the ground around the leak with “liquid glass” sodium silicate.
On April 4, a tearful Tepco executive announced the emergency effort’s most contentious manoeuvre yet: the utility would dump into the sea more than 10,000 tonnes of lightly contaminated water already in plant storage tanks, creating space for the more dangerous water in the tunnels. The move, like venting, was logical – engineering a minor radiation leak in order to prevent a major one – but it outraged local fishermen and angered neighbouring South Korea and China, who complained they were not properly consulted. “The problem wasn’t just a scientific problem, it was a social problem, and we should have been more sensitive to the way society was seeing it,” says Hosono, the prime minister’s aide. “We were so caught up in the situation that we may have lost our sense of whether society would see our decisions as the right ones.”
Nearly two months after the nuclear crisis began, its implications for Japan and the world are still impossible to chart fully. Tepco has drawn up a roadmap bringing Daiichi to a safe “cold shutdown”, but the process is expected to take at least half a year. Decommissioning and clean-up will take a decade or more – and there is always the possibility that new technical setbacks or seismic aftershocks could plunge the plant back into crisis. Tepco itself is in deep trouble: facing billions of dollars in clean-up and compensation costs, its share price has plunged by 80 per cent, top managers including Shimizu have indicated they may resign and there has been widespread speculation that the government will assume at least partial control.
Around the world, governments are reconsidering atomic programmes, throwing into doubt a “nuclear renaissance” driven by concerns about global warming. Japan has promised a review of its nuclear industry and its discredited regulators – but power shortages in Tokyo were a reminder of its reliance on atomic power. Battles loom to persuade local communities to accept new nuclear plants.
Opinion polls suggest Japanese voters are unimpressed by the Democratic party-led government’s handling of the disaster. Feuding within the ruling party and opposition obstructionism has resumed and newspapers are again speculating that the prime minister may have to resign. Still, Goshi Hosono and his colleagues can draw comfort from the fact that while the Daiichi disaster has officially been put on the same level as that of Chernobyl, it hasn’t – at least not yet – caused any direct fatalities. “My resolution now is to absolutely not allow any cases of radiation poisoning, and of course no deaths,” he says.
But a gradual improvement of conditions at Fukushima Daiichi has not ended radiation fears. By mid-April, more than 30 workers at the plant had been exposed to more than the standard limit. The government has been forced to widen planned evacuation zones, and many outside them remain deeply worried about the health implications of contaminated food, water and soil.
For the more than 100,000 radiation evacuees, scattered in school halls and temporary flats around the country, life has been dominated by the need to secure accommodation, work and compensation. In the weeks after the disaster, many former Daiichi workers who fled with their families returned to work at the plant, some brought by a sense of duty, others by fears of unemployment or promises of hefty payouts.
Ryota Takakura, the plant maintenance worker, could do with the money. Two months after escaping the plant, he is staying in a temporary government flat in Tokyo. He has no work, and when bosses at his company, a Tepco sub-contractor, called to offer him a 100-month contract to return to the plant, he refused. “I don’t want to do a job if it means I might die in 10 years’ time,” he says.
Takakura and other residents of the exclusion zone around the plant have made trips back through its deserted streets to pick up possessions from their empty homes. Yoshitada Unuma returned for his wife’s computer and a hard drive with photographs of his child. He could not bring himself to look in his farm’s cattle sheds, knowing calves inside would not have had enough food to survive. His cat and dog were waiting at home, but fear of radiation kept him from petting them. “They kept rubbing against my legs,” he says. “That was hard.”
Nobody knows how badly the land around Daiichi has been contaminated, but experts say some areas may not be safe for habitation for many years. For evacuees, there is no way of knowing when the disaster that began that March afternoon will end. “Now I’m beginning to think I’ll never be able to return home,” Unuma says. “But maybe my daughter will be able to go back someday.”
Jonathan Soble is the FT’s Tokyo correspondent; Mure Dickie is the FT’s Tokyo bureau chief.
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