Fukushima Daiichi: Inside the debacle

April 20, 2012, 9:00 AM UTC

Fukushima Daiichi

More than a year has passed since a massive earthquake and a series of tsunamis triggered the worst accident at a nuclear power plant since Chernobyl in 1986, but the epic debacle at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station remains front and center in Japan, at the very core of a historic debate over the future of nuclear energy—one that comes down to a fundamental question: Should nuclear power, which prior to the accident last year generated 30% of the electricity for the world’s third-largest economy, have any future at all in Japan?

On April 13, the government of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda tipped its hand. With summer approaching, and with it peak demand for electricity, the Japanese government approved the restart of two nuclear reactors in the small fishing town Oi, in Fukui prefecture on Japan’s west coast.

The nine power companies in Japan have the legal authority to fire up the nuclear plants once they have received regulatory approval from Tokyo, in practice. But the Noda administration now must seek the assent of the local and prefectural governments affected by a restart–as it will have to do for each of the other 48 reactors across the country should it seek to bring them back online in order to avoid crippling brown outs this summer.

That assent won’t come easily. Public opposition to nuclear power now runs hot in Japan. Far from fading over the last year, opposition seems to have expanded to a solid majority of citizens nationwide, putting both Noda’s government and Japan’s big business community (which needs the electricity) in a very difficult spot. The reason for that is the debacle of Fukushima Daiichi—the six-reactor power station owned and operated by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) —and the many questions that still surround the terrifying events that began on March 11, 2011.

For the past year, through interviews with employees of TEPCO (some officially sanctioned by the company, some without its knowledge), government officials and nuclear industry experts in Japan and abroad, we’ve attempted to answer two of the most fundamental issues at the heart of nuclear debate now roiling Japan: how could the accident at Fukushima Daiichi have happened—and how, in particular, could it have happened in Japan, a country once known, not so long ago, for its sheer management and engineering competence?

The answers are bracing. The epic disaster at Fukushima Daiichi represents failure at almost every level, from how the Japanese government regulates nuclear power, to how TEPCO managed critical details of the crisis under desperate circumstances.

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As horrific as the natural disasters that occurred on March 11, 2011 were, the Japanese government itself has concluded that the nuclear crisis effectively began more than four decades before that, when one of the world’s largest electric generating stations was located at the ocean’s edge, in a country in which earthquakes—huge ones— are facts of life, and have been for centuries. This story recounts not only the fearful days that followed the Great Tohoku quake, but what led TEPCO, and Japan, to be in such a position of vulnerability to begin with.

The Darkest Hours

In the wee hours of the morning of March 15, 2011 TEPCO President Masataka Shimizu sat in the back of his company car, threading his way through the deserted streets of Tokyo. It had been three days since a massive earthquake—9.0 on the Richter scale—and a series of tsunamis had utterly devastated northeastern Japan. No natural disaster had ever been greater, but for Shimizu, whose company operated the massive Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, an epic crisis had only begun.

Masataka Shimizu, TEPCO president

He had been summoned to the office of Naoto Kan, then Prime Minister of Japan. Kan was furious: As horrific as the damage from the quake and tsunami was, Japan now faced the prospect of the worst nuclear accident in human history. At TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi power station, massive hydrogen explosions had already damaged two of the three reactors that had been operating on March 11, releasing dangerous levels of radiation into the atmosphere. (The three other reactors at the power station had offline at the time for routine maintenance.) The nuclear fuel in the three reactors that were operating appeared to be melting down.

The scene at the plant site, about 160 miles northeast of Tokyo, was nothing short of apocalyptic: small fires blazed at the damaged reactors, the smoke mixing with the steam that they were releasing. Radiation levels would eventually spike so high that the plant’s emergency off-site center five kilometers away had to be evacuated; astonishingly, the building was not designed to withstand elevated radiation levels, even though its precise purpose was to serve as a backup operations center during a nuclear emergency.

For three agonizing days, conditions at the Fukushima Daiichi site had been steadily deteriorating; and TEPCO, at least in the eyes of senior government officials, had not given any sign of being able to get control of the situation.

To the contrary, former Prime Minister Kan (he resigned in August) tells Fortune that the TEPCO called Tokyo’s minister of economy, trade and industry and told him TEPCO wanted to withdraw from the site completely—a staggering admission of defeat that immediately conjured up images of an uncontained nuclear meltdown; a worst case scenario, in other words, of potentially lethal proportions.
Shimizu also called Kan’s chief cabinet secretary, insisting: “We cannot hold onto the site!”

At roughly the same time, Goshi Hosono, who would become the Japanese government’s point man during the nuclear crisis, called TEPCO’s on site plant manager, Masao Yoshida, and asked if he too thought Fukushima Daiichi needed to be abandoned. Yoshida appeared to push back against Shimizu, his boss, saying, “we can still hold on, but we need weapons, like a high-pressure water pump.”

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Kan had been increasingly frustrated by the lack of what he felt was reliable information about the state of the nuclear crisis since its onset; he compared it to “playing the telephone game.” At 4 a.m., he ordered an aide to call Shimizu back and instruct him to come to his office.

(Shimizu, then 66, was not accustomed to being called on the carpet by government officials. He was a pillar of the conservative Japanese industrial establishment, and a TEPCO lifer. He had also been a member in good standing of the global nuclear power industry; less than a year earlier he had been elected to the board of the World Association of Nuclear Operators, a trade group ostensibly devoted to ensuring the “highest possible standards of safety.”)

Kan himself wanted to hear what Shimizu was thinking, but he had already decided, after talking to his nuclear emergency team before the TEPCO president arrived, that “I could not let it [an evacuation] happen. It just wasn’t an option.”

Turning a Blind Eye

There was no precedent for the magnitude of the quake and tsunami that wreaked havoc at Fukushima Daiichi. But the disaster wasn’t unimaginable. In fact, workers periodically discussed among themselves the risks of the facility’s location. “I always wondered why you would build a nuclear site this size in an earthquake zone right on the ocean,” said one worker, who requested anonymity because TEPCO had not granted him permission to speak to the press. Sitting in a small karaoke bar in the nearby city of Minami-soma, the worker was at the plant on March 11, 2011 and worked almost continuously through the spring, summer and autumn to try to contain the crisis.

TEPCO’s senior management and Japan’s nuclear regulators wondered about the risks, too, this worker noted. When the licenses for the Fukushima Daiichi generating stations were granted in 1966 and 1972, they called for the plant to be able to withstand a wave cresting at 3.1 meters in height—a figure based on the size of a tsunami in Chile in 1960.

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As recently as 2008, according to the Japanese government’s interim report into the accident released at the end of last year, TEPCO reevaluated the tsunami risks at the plant. New simulations the company ran showed waves could reach as high as 15 meters—chillingly, almost the exact height of the biggest wave that smashed into the coastline on the afternoon of March 11.

TEPCO didn’t believe the simulation was reliable.

Masao Yoshida, plant manager

As a Japanese government investigation into the nuclear accident concludes, in understated but withering prose: “TEPCO still did not take concrete measures against the possibility of tsunami,” because it didn’t trust the new model that had generated that result.

The report is equally critical of the nuclear regulatory agencies in Japan. “The investigation committee is unable to find efforts of the regulatory organizations concerned” to determine whether adequate defenses against possible tsunamis were in place.

Japan would pay dearly for that. Two TEPCO workers, in the process of inspecting unit number four, were killed instantly when the largest of the seven waves struck the plant site. The cooling systems for the reactors that were operating and the plant’s spent fuel pools were disabled when backup generators failed.

The ensuing chaos and confusion—at TEPCO headquarters and at the plant site—would lead to a series of early missteps that would eventually cause hydrogen explosions at three of the reactor units, blasts that released damaging levels of radioactive material in the atmosphere and seawater. “I thought we were done,” recalls Masao Yoshida, the plant manager. “I thought we would lose control over the reactors completely.”

Heads in the sand

Nuclear safety in Japan historically has been predicated on making sure plants could withstand “design basis accidents.”

Translation: an accident that the plant has been designed to deal with automatically. What happened a year ago went far beyond that. The industry calls the accident at Fukushima Daiichi a station blackout, or an SBO.

In the United States, in the 1980s and 90s, regulatory authorities and nuclear operators began planning for the possibility of station blackouts, in which a nuclear plant loses all sources of power, just as Fukushima Daiichi did last year. They began installing what Satoshi Sato, a nuclear industry consultant in Tokyo, calls “defense in depth,” which means there are both redundant and diverse mechanisms in place intended to cope with accidents, up to and including SBOs.

TEPCO and Japan’s nuclear regulators say they did have redundant power sources in place—the on site diesel generators that also eventually failed after the tsunami struck. (Despite sitting within a few hundred yards of the Pacific ocean, the generators were not designed to withstand flooding.)

But Japan never even tried to prepare for station blackouts. Even as the rest of the world moved on, says Sato, the feeling in Tokyo was, “SBOs are not conceivable; don’t even think about it.”

Critics of the industry in Japan say there is a basic reason for that. Historically, the government and the power companies spent more time and energy trying to convince the public that nuclear energy was safe than it did actually trying to make nuclear energy safe. Says Sato: “we spent ten times more money for PR campaigns than we did for real safety measures. It’s a terrible thing.”

Naoto Kan, former Prime Minister

“A Tough Moment”

When Shimizu walked into Kan’s office in the early hours of March 15 of last year, the Prime Minister was surrounded by the key officials from his office and various ministries trying to cope with the ongoing crisis.

Kan told the TEPCO executive that his plan to withdraw from Fukushima Daiichi was unacceptable. “There’s no way you can leave the site.” Shimizu, according to Kan, didn’t protest. “I understand,” he replied. TEPCO has denied through its press spokesmen that it ever intended to pull out entirely from the plant and Shimizu has declined to talk to the press. Kan, in his interview with Fortune, was adamant in his language about what Shimizu said he wanted to do: “Tettai,” he said in Japanese. Withdraw.

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Kan said he then told the Shimizu that they needed to set up a joint nuclear task force at the company’s headquarters, so lines of communication might be improved. Kan wanted to reinforce the message at TEPCO, and so he drove to the headquarters shortly after Shimizu had left.

At around 5:45 that morning, he addressed some 200 TEPCO employees, including Shimizu and the chairman, Tsunehisa Katsumata, and told them that he knew they faced “a tough moment.”

In the days that followed the station blackout, many of TEPCO’s on site workers went to extraordinary lengths to cope with the chaotic and deteriorating situation. They scrambled to the site’s parking lots and scavenged car batteries to try to generate power to open key valves at the reactors.

When the government gave the orders to vent the primary containment vessels of the operating reactors, an important step to diminish the pressure building up inside, workers popped potassium iodide tablets and were told they had only 17 minutes to work, lest they be exposed for too long to radiation levels that were dangerously high.

The man at the center of this, TEPCO’s point man during the crisis, was Masao Yoshida, the site manager at Fukushima Daiichi. He had also been frustrated in the firstdays of the crisis by what he felt was bad information Kan and other key people in Tokyo were getting.

Yoshida understood better than anyone involved that getting water onto the reactors and into the spent fuel pools was the most important thing that needed to happen. But at one point, more than a day into crisis and—after a hydrogen explosion had already damaged reactor unit one—the powers that be in Tokyo got sidetracked, at least in Yoshida’s view, by a discussion about “re-criticality.”

Kan wanted to know whether the exposed core could still create a fissile reaction, complicating the effort to achieve a “cold shut-down” (which to this day remains the ultimate end game at Fukushima Daiichi.) According to the detailed account of an independent investigative commission led by Yoichi Funabashi, one of Japan’s most respected journalists, the discussion somehow got tangled up with the question of whether to try to pump seawater into the reactors.

Yoshida, with the situation at the plant deteriorating rapidly, thought this discussion was a complete waste of time. He was thus stunned, according to the Funabashi Commission report, when on a conference call with Shimizu and TEPCO’s chief liaison with the government, Ichiro Takekuro, he was told to delay the spraying of seawater onto the exposed reactors.

This, in Yoshida’s view, was exactly the wrong thing to do at that moment.

So during the call, Yoshida motioned another employee over and whispered to him that even though he would now order a halt to the seawater injections—so the officials in Tokyo could hear him doing so on the phone—he wanted everyone at the site to understand that they should disregard that order. Seawater needed to be sprayed onto the site—or they were going to be in worse trouble than they were already.

In any chain of command situation anywhere, it was nothing less than insubordination. In a Japanese context, what Yoshida did is practically unthinkable. Hierarchy is everything in Japan. It literally dictates how low you should bow when meeting someone else. (In late November, Yoshida stepped down as site manager, having been hospitalized with an undisclosed illness.)

Yoshida’s decision in the face of crisis speaks volumes as to just how desperate the situation was then. “It was exactly the right thing to do,” says Sato, the consultant.

Into the Fire

In the first hours and days following the earthquake and tsunami, investigators have found TEPCO personnel made also critical mistakes—a couple of which are still unexplained.

One involved a critical piece of equipment, known as an isolation condenser, which keeps the water level in the reactor constant even if offsite electricity is lost. On the night of March 11, TEPCO operators at the plant site belatedly recognized that the system was not functioning, and then once they did, tried and failed to open up manually a valve that had been closed.

The assumption that the system was working delayed the decision to “vent”, or depressurize, the reactor unit, a mistake that, in the eyes of the government’s interim report, led to the first huge hydrogen explosion at reactor one the afternoon of March 12.

The independent Funabashi report also questions why it took seven hours from the time Prime Minister Kan approved the plan to vent to the first attempt to execute it. All the while, more hydrogen was leaking into the reactor building.

Conditions inside the plant—and confusion just outside of it— may have precluded swifter action.

Yoshida had ordered his team to make preparations to vent reactors one and two shortly after midnight, and Kan, the Prime Minister, approved the plan at around 1:30am.

But there was no procedure to operate the vent valves without power, so Yoshida’s operators had to figure out on the fly how to do so manually—and then take potentially fatal risks to try to make it work.

At the same time, the government wanted to make sure residents who still remained in the area around of the plant were evacuated. It would be several hours before that happened, in part because the residents had no idea in which direction they were to flee.

Shortly after 9 in the morning of March 12, Yoshida dispatched the two teams. Both had volunteered to go into the reactor, knowing that radiation levels were dangerously high. Each headed to different sections to open critical valves.

The first team succeeded and quickly withdrew. But as the second team entered, their “dose rates” — their exposure to radiation—immediately spiked. One of the operators was instantly exposed to 106 millisieverts of radiation, above the 100 “emergency dose limit” mandated by TEPCO.

The team was pulled out immediately, having failed to open the necessary valves to reduce pressure in the reactor. It took until 2:30 that afternoon—almost 24 hours after the earthquake —for venting of reactor one to commence.

Just over an hour later, at 3:36, the massive explosion shook the site.

Over the next three days, two more hydrogen blasts followed, one at reactor three, and one at unit four, which had been offline at the time of the tsunami.

In the desperate days just after the accident, there was no single event or decision that brought the situation back from the brink. Yoshida’s decision to ignore the order against spraying seawater was important. The eventual ability of the Japanese military, police and fire department units, using multiple water cannons and fire trucks, to get to the site and douse it with seawater prevented the crisis from becoming even worse.

If there was a making-it-up-as-they-went-along quality to the effort, it’s because they were: the defense forces didn’t even have a site map for Fukushima Daiichi when its personnel first arrived.

Still, starting from about March 17, Kan told Fortune he felt “we were creating a defense line, we were pushing back against the enemy.’’ Radiation levels, while still high, had stopped increasing. Days later some electricity was finally restored to the site.

But it would be a long time before Kan or anyone else felt any sense of relief. On July 19th, TEPCO said it believed it had stabilized the temperature inside the reactors — an important step toward the goal of “cold shutdown.” That was the first day, Kan says, when he could effectively exhale, when he thought “the worst was over.”

The Funabashi commission report points out in withering detail that the Japanese government never gave its citizens a realistic sense of just how long it would take to get control of the disabled plant, nor what the ongoing risks were as radiation continued to be emitted from the site. Arguably, it still hasn’t.

On December 16, Kan’s successor, Yoshihiko Noda, announced that the stricken reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station had reached “a state of cold shutdown.” Japan’s worst-ever nuclear accident, the Prime Minister said, had finally been brought under control.

The moment was meant to be a calming milestone, psychological balm for a wounded country in the process of trying to heal. The only problem with it, as workers today at the nuclear power plant, will tell you, is this: it wasn’t true then, and it’s still not true today. “The coolant water is keeping the reactor temperatures at a certain level, but that’s not even near the goal [of a cold shut down,]” says an engineer working inside the plant. “The fact is, we still don’t know what’s going on inside the reactors.”