Chapter 1: Who is there to halt nuclear reactors? Nobody came to help

japanese 日本語版

Photo: Masao Yoshida, general manager of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, in white protective gear, takes questions from reporters in the plant’s quake-proof control center building in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, on Nov. 12, 2011. On Yoshida’s left is Goshi Hosono, then state minister in charge of the nuclear disaster. (Ikuro Aiba)

An explosion rocked the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant’s No. 3 reactor building at 11:01 a.m. on March 14, 2011, three days after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.

An unmanned TV camera captures smoke rising from the thick concrete reactor building. Footage of the explosion was aired live.

Question: There would certainly be calls for water, so I thought somebody, somewhere would probably have ordered the building of whatever pipeline connection could be built with the outside. Did it never occur in people’s minds to order whatever pipeline connection to be built? Or maybe, even if they had said that, as we have just discussed ...

Yoshida: I don’t know that. I stayed in here, so I don’t know at all what kind of moves people were making from the outside. I only know that, after all, nobody did anything for us. I have no idea whatsoever if people were trying to do something for us along the way.

Q: Thank you. So much for (answering) my questions.

Yoshida: I have this persecution complex on the contrary. I mean, nobody came to help us after all. Sorry about that. Talking about my own emotions, I still feel this enormous resentment about the fact that no substantial, effective rescue came from the head office (of Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant) or anywhere else, even though we were so busy doing so many things with what little staff we had.

Q: That’s really true. Nobody came to help you after all.

Yoshida: I will come back to this point later, but if I may add, fire brigades and rescue squads came to us, but that was not particularly effective.

Photo: The skeletal structure of the No. 3 reactor building in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, on Nov. 12, 2011. (Ikuro Aiba)

The Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant became the site of the second nuclear plant explosion in Japan’s history, following on the heels of the first explosion that had taken place in the plant’s No. 1 reactor building on the afternoon of March 12. Workers performing tasks outdoors were injured in the explosion.

A fire engine at the time was pumping seawater from a depression on the coastal side of the No. 3 reactor building, called a reversing valve pit, and into the nuclear reactor. Many of the workers were performing tasks outdoors.

Members of the Self-Defense Forces were also on hand with water wagons to supply water that would be pumped into the reactor. Six workers were exposed to radiation, and several of them were injured.

This dealt a severe blow to others working at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, including Yoshida. The plant general manager held back tears as he summed up the fears of others at the plant site when he contacted TEPCO’s head office on the teleconferencing system at 12:41 p.m.

“Perhaps I shouldn’t be saying this now, but still, uh ... There have been these two explosions, and workers at the plant site have really been shocked, or whatever you might call that,” he said.

TEPCO President Masataka Shimizu responded: “I believe you staff workers, uh, are working really hard. We certainly have this question of available staff. We are discussing continuation, and we will deal with the situation to the extent we can, so please kindly hold on for a little longer.”

The TEPCO head office was leaving its Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant isolated in terms of both available staff and available supplies.

Audio: Masao Yoshida explains how the site workers were shocked.

The Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant was now short of gas oil for operating pumps for fire engines, the central players for cooling the nuclear reactors, as well as gasoline for generating power to operate measurement instruments in the central control rooms and batteries essential for opening valves for venting and other operations.

Plant workers had to go as far as the Fukushima No. 2 nuclear plant, 10 kilometers away; the J-Village sport facility, 20 km to the south; and sometimes even the Onahama Coal Center, 50 km to the south in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, to procure these essential supplies.

While the TEPCO head office was commissioning transport to carry those goods to the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, trucks were no longer carrying them into evacuation zones, which were expanded following the March 12 explosion in the No. 1 reactor building.

Truck operators were not the only ones affected.

When the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant received drums of gasoline from the Fukushima No. 2 nuclear plant, which is also operated by TEPCO, workers from both plants drove their respective transport vehicles to meet on the parking lot of a convenience store, commonly known as “Sankakuya Lawson,” or a hardware store of the Daiyu Eight chain, both located midway between the plants, to execute the delivery.

Workers for the Fukushima No. 2 plant could not go directly to the Fukushima No. 1 plant. Had they done so, their transport vehicles would have been contaminated with radioactive substances, which would have required cleaning before they could be driven back.

Photo: The central control room for the No. 3 reactor (Provided by Tokyo Electric Power Co.)

Question: When you were pumping water, did companies like Japan Nuclear Security System Co., which was operating fire engines on commission, and companies like Nanmei Kousan Co., cooperate with you?

Yoshida: They cooperated with us during the initial phase.

Q: And afterward?

Yoshida: After radiation levels rose ...

Q: Radiation levels grew too high for them to work, right? And afterward, was it TEPCO’s ...?

Yoshida: Self-defense.

Q: Was your self-defense fire brigade dealing with the situation alone?

Yoshida: Yes, although I have been told there were several commendable people who helped us.

Q: Who were they?

Yoshida: People from Nanmei, for example. The company had practically taken shelter from the site but these people, if I may say this, were helping us in the capacity of individuals. That’s what I have been told. ...

Q: For clearing rubble and doing other things from March 16, did you receive, for example, service vehicles for removing rubble, like bulldozers or whatever?

Yoshida: We had several backhoes with us, and Hazama Corp. brought us more from somewhere. It was mostly Hazama during the early days. As our civil engineering guys will tell you, Hazama did its best to clear rubble despite the high radiation levels.

Q: Why Hazama?

Yoshida: It just so happened; I don’t know why. Radiation levels were high at the time, but Hazama came to help us.

Q: Did the company, for example, clear areas around here?

Yoshida: Yes, they did. They also repaired a road to the No. 6 reactor that had caved in along the way. It was Hazama that was the first to come willingly to help us rebuild infrastructure. I don’t know why Hazama took it upon itself. Hazama was doing that in the end. I guess there had been a lot of talks, and the company turned out to be the most willing.

Audio: Masao Yoshida shouts a curse because nobody has responded to his remarks.

At 9:44 p.m. on March 11, 2011, the day of the quake and tsunami, one chemical fire engine left TEPCO’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant in Niigata Prefecture for Fukushima. On board were three employees of Nanmei Kousan Co., a TEPCO contractor for fire control services.

The total loss of alternating-current power supply at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant had rendered inoperable all pumps for emergency cooling of nuclear reactors. As an alternative, Yoshida and colleagues proposed using fire engines to pump water from the outside into nuclear reactors.

It was going to be the world’s first attempt at practicing the method, which was not mentioned in the “accident management guide.” The guide defines what response measures should be taken during a catastrophic incident.

Only one of the three fire engines at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, however, was available at the time. Another had been swept away by the tsunami, whereas the remaining one could not access the No. 1 through No. 4 reactors because of damaged roads on the plant premises.

Only a handful of individuals, anyway, could have operated fire engines. In fact, no TEPCO employee had ever operated a fire engine. No one had even helped operate a fire engine in terms of connecting a hose to a hydrant or connecting two hoses.

The Nanmei unit was given various tasks as soon as it arrived.


The channels of water injection from fire engines into nuclear reactors were modified a number of times at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. Workers at one moment were pumping fresh water from fire cisterns and other storage tanks, but the next moment they were pumping seawater that filled a depression called a reversing valve pit. They subsequently pumped in water directly from the sea.

Workers relocated fire engines and reconnected hoses every time the channels were modified. During the process, the Nanmei unit increased its work force at TEPCO’s request.

Helping to operate fire engines mostly involved being outdoors. Workers were, therefore, constantly exposed to high radiation levels. They were also showered with rubble when explosions tore through the No. 1 and No. 3 reactor buildings.

Yoshida was concerned about their safety. But in the event, there was nobody from TEPCO who could have replaced them.

When it came to clearing rubble, one general contractor offered assistance.

Cooling the nuclear fuel storage pools in reactor buildings emerged as a major challenge from March 15 at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. Workers proposed using a special type of fire engine to direct water from the ground surface, but rubble was blocking the approach of fire engines to the reactor buildings.

The rubble was derived from successive explosions in the No. 1, No. 3 and No. 4 reactor buildings. The rubble itself gave off high levels of radiation.

Workers and heavy machinery were deployed to clear it, even though high radiation levels prevailed.

Photo: Fire engines pump water into nuclear reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant on March 16, 2011. (Provided by Tokyo Electric Power Co.)

Audio: Masao Yoshida explains the state of rubble.

Question: When these explosions were taking place--let’s say, on March 13 or 14--what was the situation with people from the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency?

Yoshida: I don’t remember it very well, but when the event happened, the NISA people all fled into the quake-proof control center building. When the Off-Site Center was set up immediately afterward, they all left for the Off-Site Center. I was looking at DVD proceedings a moment ago, because I didn’t remember. Muto did talk, at one point, about sending (NISA’s) safety inspectors here from the Off-Site Center when it was in Okuma. That was on March 14, but they didn't come after all.

Q: They never came?

Yoshida: No. Although I don’t remember, I guess it was only some time later that (NISA officials) came to stay with us around the clock, as they do now.

Q: If NISA people were to come to you, they would, for example, come to the emergency response room if they wanted to get information, right?

Yoshida: Yes.

Q: Let’s suppose they do. Are they supposed to come to say hello to you, the plant general manager, or do they just stay around the round table of the headquarters?

Yoshida: We have no reason to refuse safety inspectors, so they can come in whenever they can afford to do so. They wear NISA uniforms, so we know they are there, and they can join meetings just casually. That’s how we deal with them.

Q: Are there seats reserved for NISA at the round table?

Yoshida: Initially, there weren’t. We discussed things like that, and we were like, let’s have NISA people sit there.

Q: When was it?

Yoshida: When Muto made the initial phone call to say that NISA people were coming; they possibly came to us for one brief visit around (March) 14. I kind of remember that. They were with us only briefly. They all withdrew to (the prefectural capital of) Fukushima when the Off-Site Center was relocated there. I have the impression they were not with us, after all, when the Self-Defense Forces and firefighters were working until (March) 16 or 17.

Q: Would they not have stayed all the time in a NISA office, for example, if they had been on the site grounds?

Yoshida: They had no way to go to the (NISA) office, because you could only live in the quake-proof (control center) building. I mean, radiation levels, and exposure.

Photo: An aerial view of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant’s No. 3 reactor building, left, and No. 4 reactor building in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, at 11:03 a.m. on Feb. 20, 2013 (Hiroshi Kawai)

Nuclear safety inspectors from NISA, or today’s Nuclear Regulation Authority secretariat, are supposed to be stationed permanently at every nuclear power plant.

Naturally, inspectors were staying on the grounds of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck. Following the quake, they temporarily went to the quake-proof control center building, but they moved to the Fukushima Off-Site Center as soon as the latter was set up some time later 5 kilometers to the southwest.

At 6:48 a.m. on March 13, two days after the quake and tsunami, Sakae Muto, a TEPCO executive vice president in charge of nuclear power who was at the Off-Site Center at the time, called in to tell Yoshida that safety inspectors were returning to the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

“Four NISA safety inspectors will be stationed permanently with you,” Muto said. “They will work 12-hour shifts and will be reporting plant data, including the situation with regard to nuclear reactor water, at one-hour intervals.”

Yoshida immediately ordered his subordinates to prepare for their arrival.

“Reception of safety inspectors!” the plant general manager shouted.

The safety inspectors did arrive some time later, but they apparently returned to the Off-Site Center toward the evening of March 14, as the situation with the No. 2 reactor was becoming alarming. They withdrew to the prefectural capital of Fukushima, 60 km from the plant, when the Off-Site Center was relocated there on the morning of March 15.


In the event of a nuclear emergency, more than 40 officials, representing 10 or more central government ministries and agencies, were supposed to be stationed at the Off-Site Center, 5 km from the nuclear plant. The idea was that they would use the center as a hub for collecting and sending out information in a tie-up with nuclear plant officials and local governments in the neighborhood. The center was also expected to play a key role in ordering the distribution of iodine tablets for preventing thyroid gland cancer.

But only slightly more than half of the designated staff arrived during the 2011 crisis. Seven teams were supposed to be organized, each to work under the direction of a leader. But in the event, the chief of one team arrived only toward the end of March.

During the most difficult phase of the crisis, the power utility, the only entity that could operate the nuclear plant, was significantly reducing its organization whose task is to bring the situation under control. Individuals under no obligation to work were engaged in key tasks on a voluntary basis. And government officials, whose duty was to be on the front lines, did not arrive.

This is the truth about the efforts made to contain the Fukushima nuclear crisis, which indirectly claimed many lives and has left more than 130,000 people living in temporary accommodation.

To be followed by Chapter 2, Section 1: “Fresh water or seawater?”