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Monday, 25 August 2014

Kan slams TEPCO over request to “withdraw” from crippled plant




An official of Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s nuclear power division wept at the prime minister’s office in Tokyo as the utility felt it had exhausted all options to prevent the worst from happening at the crisis-hit Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in March 2011.

“I’m sorry. We’ve tried many things, but we are in a situation beyond our control,” Susumu Kawamata, the 54-year-old head of the Nuclear Quality and Safety Management Department, told industry minister Banri Kaieda before breaking down.

A government nuclear safety panel member who witnessed the scene thought it marked the end of one of the most prestigious companies in Japan.

Shortly after 4 a.m. on March 15, Prime Minister Naoto Kan, 64, was sitting face to face with TEPCO President Masataka Shimizu, 66, telling him that the utility does not have the option of withdrawing its people from the plant, which had already experienced explosions at the Nos. 1 and 3 reactor buildings and was facing fears of a reactor containment rupture.

It was about eight and a half hours before their meeting that TEPCO’s top-level officials started considering the evacuation of its employees from the plant.

At around 7:30 p.m. on March 14, TEPCO’s Managing Director Akio Komori, who was at an emergency response center set up about 5 kilometers from the plant, started off the discussion at a teleconference session with the officials at the Tokyo head office.

“If we don’t make a decision at some point, things could get crazy. Please start setting the criteria for evacuation,” Komori, 58, said.

Executive Vice President Sakae Muto, 60, ordered his subordinates at the head office to craft an evacuation plan, while Fukushima Daiichi plant chief Masao Yoshida started arrangements to secure buses. Procedures to send employees to TEPCO’s Fukushima Daini nuclear power plant were also being decided.

Shimizu phoned Kaieda, the 62-year-old economy, trade and industry minister in charge of dealing with the accident, and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, 46, many times to seek approval of staff withdrawal, which he called an “evacuation.”

But Shimizu did not say clearly that TEPCO would keep the minimum necessary number of people inside the plant to monitor the situation and to continue water injections into the troubled reactors.

Kaieda said he thought TEPCO was seeking a “complete withdrawal” from the plant and had turned down the request from Shimizu.

At around 3 a.m. on March 15 when the condition of the No. 2 reactor deteriorated, Kaieda decided to ask Kan to make a judgment on the issue. He woke up the prime minister who was taking a nap on a sofa and briefed him about the situation.

“If people withdraw, the eastern part of Japan will be destroyed,” Kan said, rejecting the idea and having Shimizu come over to his office.

As Shimizu stepped inside the reception room on the fifth floor of the office, Kan immediately said, “I heard that you are thinking about a withdrawal, but that’s impossible.”

Shimizu’s response was stunning to Haruki Madarame, the 62-year-old head of the government’s nuclear safety panel who was also attending the talks. Shimizu said in a thin voice, “We do not have in mind such a thing as withdrawal.”

Madarame said later, “I thought, what happened to all those talks” about getting workers out?
Officials in the prime minister’s office had misunderstood TEPCO’s intentions, while the utility’s president was at fault for making unclear remarks.

The exchanges led Kan to launch an unprecedented accident response task force in which the government and TEPCO would jointly deal with the nuclear crisis inside the utility’s head office in Tokyo.

The prime minister told Shimizu he would set up the task force and that he would go to TEPCO’s head office right away. Shimizu said he needed about two hours for preparations, but Kan told Shimizu to get it done in an hour.

Kan was still furious when he arrived at TEPCO headquarters, unable to disguise his distrust of the company.

“TEPCO will go 100 percent bust if it withdraws. You won’t be able to escape even if you try!” Kan yelled at TEPCO Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata, 70, Shimizu and other executives. There were about 200 TEPCO employees in the same room.

“It doesn’t matter if senior officials in their 60s go to the site and die. I will also go. President, chairman, make up your minds!” Kan said.

Kan’s speech continued for more than 10 minutes, which was relayed to employees inside the emergency response office at the Fukushima Daiichi plant through a real-time information-sharing teleconference system.

Kan later said he was totally unaware that he had been “yelling at everyone.” “I might have used strong words to tell them to somehow hang on until the last minute, but I didn’t mean to scold them.”
Kan was among the many politicians who came to know for the first time that TEPCO had a teleconference system hooked up to the crisis-hit plant.

“I was really surprised. There was this huge screen connected to the Daiichi plant. I wondered why information was coming so slowly to the prime minister’s office despite the existence of this system,” said Kan, who had been irritated to learn of the explosion at the No. 1 reactor building on March 12 from the TV news before TEPCO reported it to the government.

The joint task force was meant to improve communication between the government and TEPCO. But Kan would soon realize that it was too late to stop the crisis that started March 11 from growing more serious.

At the Fukushima Daiichi plant, hundreds of people inside the emergency response office were glued to the teleconference monitor showing the angry prime minister.

“Even though we were doing our best here, we felt we were being shot in the back with a machine gun,” Takeyuki Inagaki, 47-year-old leader of one of the equipment restoration teams, recalled.
After Kan finished talking, he moved to another room where there was also a monitor to communicate with the plant.

Yoshida, 56, was about to answer a call from the Tokyo office when a dull sound reached the emergency response office at about 6:14 a.m. The impact was smaller than that of the two previous explosions, but it was not an earthquake.

People’s blood ran cold as they heard from reactor operators that the pressure inside the No. 2 reactor’s suppression chamber, which is connected to the reactor’s containment vessel, had dropped to zero.

If the chamber was not airtight, a massive amount of highly radioactive steam could be released outside. Then there would be no safe place inside the plant, or in surrounding areas.

“The suppression chamber might have got a huge hole. A hell of a lot of radioactive substances could come out,” Inagaki told Yoshida.

Yoshida instantly decided it was time for evacuation.

(Reported by Hisashi Ota and Hideki Takahashi)
Source: Kyodo
http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/kyodo-news-international/140824/kan-slams-tepco-over-request-withdraw-crippled-plant
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