Page 1 of 2 What happened at Fukushima? By David McNeill and Jake Adelstein
It is one of the mysteries of Japan's ongoing nuclear crisis: How much damage
did the March 11 earthquake do to the Fukushima Daiichi reactors before the
tsunami hit? The stakes are high: If the quake structurally compromised the
plant and the safety of its nuclear fuel, then every other similar reactor in
Japan will have to be reviewed and possibly shut down. With virtually all of
Japan's 54 reactors either offline (35) or scheduled for shutdown by next
April, the issue of structural safety looms over the decision to restart every
one in the months and years after.
The operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) has been damaged by the crisis. On
Tuesday it reported a 572 billion yen (US$7.4 billion) loss on clean-up charges
and compensating people affected by the explosions at the Fukushima nuclear
plant. TEPCO's share price is down about 80% since the day before the disaster
But the key question for the company and its regulators to answer is this: How
much damage was inflicted on the Daiichi plant before the first tsunami reached
the plant roughly 40 minutes after the earthquake? TEPCO and the Japanese
government are hardly reliable adjudicators in this controversy. ''There has
been no meltdown,'' top government spokesman Edano Yukio famously repeated in
the days after March 11. ''It was an unforeseeable disaster,'' TEPCO's then
President Shimizu Masataka improbably said later. As we now know, meltdown was
already occurring even as Edano spoke. And far from being unforeseeable, the
disaster had been repeatedly forewarned.
Throughout the months of lies and misinformation, one story has stuck: The
earthquake knocked out the plant's electric power, halting cooling to its six
reactors. The tsunami - a unique, one-off event - then washed out the plant's
back-up generators, shutting down all cooling and starting the chain of events
that would cause the world's first triple meltdown. That line has now become
gospel at TEPCO.
''We had no idea that a tsunami was coming,'' said Murata Yasuki, head of
public relations for the now ruined facility. ''It came completely out of the
blue'' ("nemimi ni mizu datta"). Safety checks have since focused
heavily on future damage from tsunamis.
But what if recirculation pipes and cooling pipes burst, snapped, leaked, and
broke completely after the earthquake - before the tidal wave reached the
facilities and before the electricity went out? This would surprise few people
familiar with the nearly 40-year-old reactor one, the grandfather of the
nuclear reactors still operating in Japan.
Problems with the fractured, deteriorating, poorly repaired pipes and the
cooling system had been pointed out for years. In 2002, whistleblower
allegations that TEPCO had deliberately falsified safety records came to light
and the company was forced to shut down all of its reactors and inspect them,
including the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant. Sugaoka Kei, a General Electric
on-site inspector first notified Japan's nuclear watchdog, Nuclear Industrial
Safety Agency (NISA) in June of 2000. The government of Japan took two years to
address the problem, then colluded in covering it up - and gave the name of the
whistleblower to TEPCO.
In September 2002, TEPCO admitted covering up data about cracks in critical
circulation pipes in addition to previously revealed falsifications. In their
analysis of the cover-up, The Citizen's Nuclear Information Center writes:
records that were covered up had to do with cracks in parts of the reactor
known as recirculation pipes. These pipes are there to siphon off heat from the
reactor. If these pipes were to fracture, it would result in a serious accident
in which coolant leaks out. From the perspective of safety, these are highly
important pieces of equipment. Cracks were found in the Fukushima Daiichi Power
Plant, reactor one, reactor two, reactor three, reactor four, reactor five.''
The cracks in the pipes were not due to earthquake damage; they came from the
simple wear and tear of long-term usage. On March 2, 2011, nine days before the
meltdown, the Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) warned TEPCO of its
failure to inspect critical pieces of plant equipment, including the
recirculation pumps. TEPCO was ordered to make the inspections, perform repairs
if needed and report to NISA on June 2. It does not appear that the report has
been filed as of this time.
The problems were not only with the piping. Gas tanks at the site also exploded
after the earthquake. The outside of the reactor building suffered structural
damage. There was no one really qualified to assess the radioactive leakage
because, as NISA admits, after the accident all the on-site inspectors fled.
And the quake and tsunami broke most of the monitoring equipment so there was
little information available on radiation afterwards.
The authors have spoken to several workers at the plant. Each recites the same
story: Serious damage to piping and at least one of the reactors before the
tsunami hit. All have requested anonymity because they are still working at or
connected with the stricken plant. Worker A, a 27-year-old maintenance engineer
who was at the Fukushima complex on March 11, recalls hissing, leaking pipes.
personally saw pipes that had come apart and I assume that there were many more
that had been broken throughout the plant. There's no doubt that the earthquake
did a lot of damage inside the plant. There were definitely leaking pipes, but
we don't know which pipes - that has to be investigated. I also saw that part
of the wall of the turbine building for reactor one had come away. That crack
might have affected the reactor.''
The walls of the reactor are
quite fragile, he notes.
''If the walls are too rigid, they can crack
under the slightest pressure from inside so they have to be breakable because
if the pressure is kept inside and there is a buildup of pressure, it can
damage the equipment inside the walls. So it needs to be allowed to escape.
It's designed to give during a crisis, if not it could be worse - that might be
shocking to others, but to us it's common sense.''
WORKER B, a
technician in his late thirties who was also on site at the time of the
earthquake recalls what happened.
''It felt like the earthquake hit in
two waves, the first impact was so intense you could see the building shaking,
the pipes buckling, and within minutes, I saw pipes bursting. Some fell off the
wall. Others snapped. I'm pretty sure that some of the oxygen tanks stored on
site had exploded but I didn't see for myself. Someone yelled that we all
needed to evacuate. I was severely alarmed because as I was leaving I was told,
and I could see, that several pipes had cracked open, including what I believe
were cold water supply pipes. That would mean that coolant couldn't get to the
reactor core. If you can't get sufficient coolant to the core, it melts down.
You don't have to be a nuclear scientist to figure that out.''
he was heading to his car, he could see that the walls of the reactor one
building itself had already started to collapse. ''There were holes in them. In
the first few minutes, no one was thinking about a tsunami. We were thinking
Worker C was coming into work late when the earthquake hit. ''I was in a
building nearby when the earthquake shook. After the second shockwave hit, I
heard a loud explosion. I looked out the window and I could see white smoke
coming from reactor one. I thought to myself, ‘this is the end'.''
When the worker got to the office five to 15 minutes later the supervisor
immediately ordered everyone to evacuate, explaining, ''there's been an
explosion of some gas tanks in reactor one, probably the oxygen tanks. In
addition to this there has been some structural damage, pipes have burst,
meltdown is possible. Please take shelter immediately.'' (It should be noted
that several explosions occurred at Daiichi even after the March 11 earthquake,
one of which TEPCO stated, ''was probably due to a gas tank left behind in the
As the employees prepared to leave, the tsunami warning came. Many of them fled
to the top floor of a building near the site and waited to be rescued.
The suspicion that the quake caused severe damage to the reactors is
strengthened by reports that radiation leaked from the plant minutes later.
Bloomberg has reported that a radiation alarm went off at the plant before the
tsunami hit on March 11. The news agency says that one of the few monitoring
posts left working, on the perimeter of the plant ''about 1.5 kilometers (1
mile) from the No. 1 reactor went off at 3:29 pm, minutes before the station
was overwhelmed by the tsunami.''
The reason for official reluctance to admit that the earthquake did direct
structural damage to reactor one is obvious. Onda Katsunobu, author of TEPCO:
The Dark Empire, who sounded the alarm about the firm, explains it this
''If TEPCO and the government of Japan admit an earthquake can do
direct damage to the reactor, this raises suspicions about the safety of every
reactor they run. They are using a number of antiquated reactors that have the
same systemic problems, the same wear and tear on the piping.''
Onda Katsunobu's book detailed the history of accidents and cover-ups at TEPCO
in great detail. It was mostly ignored and sold only 4,000 copies. Published in
2007, it was reissued this year. In many ways, it was remarkably prescient
Kikuchi Yoichi, a former GE engineer who helped build the Fukushima nuclear
power plant says unequivocally that, "the