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Inside Japan’s Nuclear Meltdown

 Dan Edge


Part I


March 11, 2011 
Day 1

TAKASHI SATO, Former Plant Inspector: [through interpreter] On March 11th, there was a relaxed atmosphere at work. I was at my computer, writing reports. Before that day, we’d had a few earthquakes, around magnitude 4. Then, I think it was about 2:46 PM, I felt an incredible rumbling in the earth. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced.

[Weather camera footage]

NARRATOR: The earthquake that shook the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant was the most powerful to strike Japan since records began. The company that operates the plant, TEPCO, has forbidden its workers from speaking publicly about what followed.

But one year on, they are starting to tell their stories. Some have asked for their identities to be hidden for fear of being fired.

“ONO”: [through interpreter] I saw all the pipes fixed to the wall shifting and ripping off.

TAKASHI SATO: [through interpreter] It was getting stronger and stronger. This was no ordinary quake.

“MURAKAMI”: [through interpreter] We were all on our knees, holding onto the railings. Then the power was cut.

NARRATOR: The workers stayed calm because they knew Japanese power plants are designed to withstand earthquakes. The reactors automatically shut down within seconds. But the high radioactivity of nuclear fuel rods means they generate intense heat even after a shutdown. So backup generators kicked in to power the cooling systems and stop the fuel rods from melting.

Takashi Sato is a reactor inspector who no longer works at the plant.

TAKASHI SATO: [through interpreter] I wasn’t worried about the condition of the plant. I had always thought nuclear power was safe. But in the end, the plant wasn’t safe, was it.

3:15 PM

NARRATOR: Just up the coast, the fishermen of Fukushima knew what was coming next.

YOSHIO ICHIDA: [through interpreter] It’s always been said on this shore the tsunami will follow the earthquake. I went straight to the harbor and headed out to sea.

NARRATOR: Yoshio Ichida wanted to save his boat. He was racing straight into the biggest tsunami waves to strike Japan in hundreds of years, hoping to crest them before they broke.

YOSHIO ICHIDA: [through interpreter] They were like mountains. We went over three waves that came directly from the east. They were about 15 meters high. It was like this.

NARRATOR: The biggest of the waves was more than 40 feet high and traveling at over 100 miles an hour.

YOSHIO ICHIDA: [through interpreter] When I looked back to shore, there was a strange ocean mist. I knew something bad was happening.

NARRATOR: At the nuclear plant, a worker was filming as his co-workers fled to higher ground.

FLEEING WORKER: [subtitles] Hurry up! It’s coming!

FLEEING WORKER: [subtitles] The tsunami is going to catch you!

NARRATOR: At 3:35 PM, the biggest of the waves struck. It was more than twice the height of the plant’s seawall.

It’s now known that TEPCO had been warned by a government committee of scientists in 2009 that its tsunami defenses were inadequate. The company says it was still reviewing the matter when the disaster happened.

Now the tsunami flooded the nuclear plant.

“MURAKAMI”: [through interpreter] The port area was trashed. I felt something incredible had happened.

NARRATOR: This man is a senior nuclear engineer who still works at the plant.

“MURAKAMI”: [through interpreter] Cars had been left everywhere by the wave. Buildings and 5,000-ton fuel tanks were sucked out to sea. I watched them slowly sinking.

NARRATOR: Most of the backup diesel generators needed to power the cooling systems were located in basements. They were destroyed by the tsunami waters, meaning the workers had no way of keeping the nuclear fuel from melting.

TAKASHI SATO: [through interpreter] When I heard the diesel generators were lost, I couldn’t square that with reality. I was stunned.

NARRATOR: This is the frantically scribbled log the engineers kept on a whiteboard in the control room as the nuclear plant slid towards disaster. “15:42, nuclear emergency declared. 15:50, loss of water level readings. 16:36, emergency core cooling system malfunction. No water can be injected.”

TEPCO turned down FRONTLINE’s requests for interviews with plant workers, but put forward the managing director of its nuclear division. He acknowledged the company had never imagined that one of their nuclear plants could lose all power.

AKIO KOMORI, Managing Dir., TEPCO Nuclear Division: [subtitles] We were entering territory that exceeded what we had ever considered. My gut feeling was that our options for responding were going to be rather limited.

5:00 PM

NARRATOR: In the 90 minutes since the tsunami, Japan’s government had been scrambling to deal with one of the biggest natural disasters in the country’s history. Now the prime minister was informed that the cooling systems had failed at Fukushima.

NAOTO KAN, Prime Minister, 2010-11: [subtitles] When I got that news, I truly felt the situation was extremely serious. The earthquake and tsunami had caused massive damage. Now we had a nuclear accident on top of that. I knew if we left it, it would melt down. I felt a shiver down my spine.

NARRATOR: The prime minister asked to be kept informed of what was happening in Fukushima. But for now, the executives at TEPCO headquarters in Tokyo were in charge of tackling the nuclear emergency.

5:30 PM

NARRATOR: Two hours had now passed since the tsunami. The coastline was devastated. Around 20,000 people were dead or missing.

Norio Kimura, a farmer from Fukushima, lived just two miles from the nuclear plant. He’d been out working when the waves struck. Now he was searching for his family. Survivors were gathering at the local sports center, unaware of the unfolding nuclear crisis.

NORIO KIMURA: [through interpreter] Many people had gathered. I was told three of my family were missing. I felt cold, like my blood was being drained.

NARRATOR: Norio’s father was missing. So was his wife, and his youngest daughter, Yuna.

NORIO KIMURA: [through interpreter] I just couldn’t accept that the tsunami might have killed them. I started searching in the rubble, not just around my house but the whole village.

NARRATOR: As night fell, the Japanese government ordered an evacuation of everyone within two miles of Fukushima Dai-ichi. But Norio and others ignored the order and kept searching for their families.

11:30 PM

NARRATOR: Just along the coast, the nuclear plant was still without power. The workers had no functioning instruments to reveal what was happening inside the reactor cores. They improvised.

TAKASHI SATO: [through interpreter] All of us who had a car or a company car were asked to get the batteries to try to restore power.

NARRATOR: The scavenged batteries allowed vital monitoring instruments in the Reactor 1 control room to work again. Just before midnight, the workers restored power to the pressure gauge. The levels caused panic.

MURAKAMI: [through interpreter] The pressure was going up and up. Everyone thought, “Isn’t this dangerous? Are we in trouble?”

NARRATOR: The engineers realized the rising heat of the fuel rods in the reactor core was creating massive amounts of radioactive steam and hydrogen. The resulting pressure meant the workers could not get water onto the fuel. Even worse, it meant the containment vessel might explode, a disaster that could leave parts of Japan uninhabitable for decades.

1:00 AM 
Day 2

NARRATOR: TEPCO now knew they had to release radioactive gases into the atmosphere to prevent the reactor from exploding. But to take such a desperate measure, the company needed the permission of the prime minister himself.

NAOTO KAN: [subtitles] I got a report from TEPCO that the pressure was going up. Venting was necessary. What should we do?

NARRATOR: Radiation has long been a sensitive subject in Japan. After the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, tens of thousands died of radiation sickness and cancers. Yet now Japan’s prime minister felt he had no choice but to authorize the deliberate release of radioactivity.

NAOTO KAN: [subtitles] Everyone agreed the venting had to happen. So I said, “I understand. Do it. Let’s do it.”

NARRATOR: But there was something TEPCO wasn’t telling the prime minister. The company had never imagined they might have to vent a reactor without electricity. They didn’t know how to do it.

“MURAKAMI”: [through interpreter] The venting valves are driven by motors. So without electricity, they won’t open. It’s possible to open them manually, but really difficult.

NARRATOR: In the darkness of the Reactor 1 control room, the workers pored over blueprints to try to work out how to open the vents. The handwritten plant logs show that radiation levels were now rising.

TAKASHI SATO: [through interpreter] To see those kind of numbers would normally be unthinkable. And this isn’t inside the reactor itself, it’s in the office. It was a disaster.

NARRATOR: The engineers suspected something that the prime minister and TEPCO would not acknowledge for months — nuclear meltdown had begun.

“MURAKAMI”: [through interpreter] I realized that the fuel had started to melt. We got our masks and put them by our feet so we could escape at any time.

6:00 AM
 Day 2

NARRATOR: Back in Tokyo, six hours after the order to vent the reactors, there was still no news from the plant. The prime minister began to suspect that TEPCO was hiding the truth. He decided to go to Fukushima Dai-ichi himself. He was later criticized for interfering with the emergency work at the plant, but he says he had to find out what was really going on.

NAOTO KAN: [subtitles] Everyone agreed that we should vent. But no one could explain why it wasn’t happening. It was like a game of telephone with TEPCO headquarters in the middle.

NARRATOR: At Fukushima Dai-ichi, the Prime Minister met directly with the TEPCO engineers. He insisted they vent the reactors

“MURAKAMI”: [through interpreter] Kan was very angry. The government had given an order. What was TEPCO doing? But we were trying our best. The valves were hard to open. We were genuinely trying, we just hadn’t managed it.

NARRATOR: The plant manager, Masao Yoshida, was known for being frank. He knew the radiation near the vents was at potentially fatal levels, but he told the prime minister he’d send in a suicide squad if necessary.

NAOTO KAN: [subtitles] He said, “I get it.” Then he showed me his plan.

NARRATOR: The prime minister knew his orders might condemn the men who went into the reactor to death, but he felt Japan’s future was at stake.

NAOTO KAN: [subtitles] For me, it was a very difficult decision. But I thought it had to be done, and I did it.

NARRATOR: But then TEPCO got some news which meant the venting was delayed yet again. The evacuation of the surrounding villages was not yet complete. If the reactors were vented, local residents could be exposed to dangerous levels of radiation.

Norio Kimura was two miles from the plant, together with his eldest daughter, Mayu. He was still searching for his youngest daughter, his wife, and his father. Now he faced a choice: abandon the search, or risk exposing his surviving daughter to radiation.

NORIO KIMURA: [through interpreter] The head of the village told me that the nuclear plant was in trouble. He persuaded me to leave. He told me the living were more important than the dead. That’s when my feelings changed. I had one daughter left. I had to protect her.

NARRATOR: By just after 9:00 o’clock on the morning of March the 12th, the villages around the plant had been evacuated. At last, TEPCO ordered the venting team to go in. The plant logs show the first two volunteers set off at 9:04 AM.

“MURAKAMI”: [through interpreter] They knew they’d be exposed to radiation, but they went in.

VOLUNTEER WORKERS: [subtitles] The pipes look all right. 50 milli. The radiation is rising!

NARRATOR: This footage was filmed by TEPCO seven months later, when radiation levels remained dangerous. It shows the reactor building where the venting team had to operate.

“MURAKAMI”: [through interpreter] It was not a place for humans. The temperature was 100 degrees plus. The surroundings were pitch black, and there was condensation. The radiation was high. I don’t think I would have been able to go.

NARRATOR: Each worker was limited to 17 minutes in the reactor building.

VOLUNTEER WORKER: [subtitles] 67 milli!

NARRATOR: After nine minutes, the workers found the wheel for opening the vent. They inched it open, then pulled back when time ran out. Four more workers followed, each spending just minutes in the reactors.

“MURAKAMI”: [through interpreter] They showed courage. And resolution. Their lives were on the line.

2:00 PM
 Day 2

NARRATOR: That afternoon, a thin plume of gas signaled that the pressure in the reactor core was falling. The venting team appeared to have saved northeastern Japan from a catastrophic explosion. The Fukushima workers began to think the worst might be over.

TAKASHI SATO: [through interpreter] I started to relax. I was hoping the reactor would soon be stable and they would let us leave soon.

NARRATOR: With the venting complete, the workers could focus on getting vitally needed water into the reactor cores. Suddenly, the ground shook.

“MURAKAMI”: [through interpreter] I was thrown a foot from my chair. No one knew what it was. Maybe an earthquake?

TAKASHI SATO: [through interpreter] The ground was rumbling and shaking like an aftershock. It was like thunder.

“MURAKAMI”: [through interpreter] Then Yoshida said, “Did Reactor 1 just explode?” Then we all panicked.

NARRATOR: The engineers feared that the reactor core itself had exploded, scattering radioactive fuel over the plant. In the control center, they watched the radiation levels— and waited to learn if they would survive.

“MURAKAMI”: [through interpreter] Many of us thought of running away. But there was no escape. If you actually ran, you would be exposed to radiation.

NARRATOR: After an hour, the radiation levels stabilized. The engineers figured out what had happened. Leaking hydrogen had exploded in the roof of the reactor building, but the reactor core itself was intact.

CHIEF CABINET SECRETARY: [press conference] [subtitles] The radiation levels have not changed much since the explosion. Please remain calm.

NARRATOR: In Tokyo, the prime minister’s chief cabinet secretary was playing down the crisis.

CHIEF CABINET SECRETARY: [subtitles] We see no indications of damage to the containment vessel itself.

NARRATOR: The prime minister and his team were later fiercely criticized for hiding the severity of the disaster from the Japanese people and the world. Behind the scenes, they knew the situation was sliding out of control. The explosion had halted efforts to get water onto the reactor cores. It was now only a matter of time before the fuel would melt through into the open, spewing out much worse levels of radiation.

NAOTO KAN: [subtitles] We started to think about how far this accident would spread. I asked people to do a simulation. The worst-case scenario was an evacuation of 120 to 190 miles around the plant. If that happened, Tokyo would grind to a halt. Japan would grind to a halt.

NARRATOR: Already a plume of radiation from the gas released in the explosion was drifting across Japan. The government widened the evacuation zone, ordering everyone within 12 miles of the plant to flee.

Norio Kimura and his surviving daughter were still in that danger zone when they got the news.

NORIO KIMURA: [through interpreter] I now thought it was dangerous to stay. Iodine tablets were being handed out in the village. I made my daughter take one. I had to take her somewhere safe. That’s all I could think about. We had to get far away from the nuclear plant.


Download a PDF file of the complete transcript of Inside Japan’s Nuclear Meltdown (Parts I and II) here:

Inside Japan’s Nuclear Meltdown


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