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How first 24 hours shaped Japan’s nuclear crisis

Posted by on July 2, 2011 0 Comment

When Unit 2 began to shake, Hiroyuki Kohno’s first hunch was that something was wrong with the turbines. He paused for a moment, then went back to logging the day’s radioactivity readings.

He expected it to pass. Until the shakes became jolts.

As sirens wailed, he ran to an open space, away from the walls, and raced down a long corridor with two colleagues. Parts of the ceiling fell around them. Outside, he found more pandemonium.

“People were shouting about a tsunami,” he said. “At that point, I really thought I might die.”

Breathless, Kohno climbed a small hill and turned to look back. Black plumes rose from the reactor units. The emergency generators, burning diesel, had kicked in.

He saw the wave. It crashed over the plant’s seawall, stopping only when it reached the foot of the slope about 500 yards (460 meters) from where he stood.

Kohno watched, stunned.

Unit 2, one of six reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power station, is ordinary by nuclear standards: a drab labyrinth of switches and valves, ladders and bulkheads, meters and gauges. That’s how Kohno, a veteran radioactivity specialist, knew it.

Now, nothing about what he saw was normal.

Kohno kept moving.

The events of the next 24 hours brought the promise of nuclear power into question, both in Japan and around the world.

Through interviews with dozens of officials, workers and experts, and hundreds of pages of newly released documents, The Associated Press found the early response to the crisis was marked by confusion, inadequate preparation, a lack of forthrightness with the public and a reluctance to make quick decisions. These problems set the tone for the troubled recovery effort since.

On March 11, Prime Minister Naoto Kan was taking a beating in an Upper House committee meeting over whether he had taken campaign money from a foreign national, which is illegal in Japan.

The questioning stopped suddenly when the entire parliament building, a sprawling structure in the center of Tokyo, started to rock. It was 2:46 p.m. All eyes rose to the huge crystal chandeliers above, clinking and shaking violently.

“Everyone, please stay in a safe position,” committee chairman Yosuke Tsuruho said, grasping the armrests of his upholstered velvet chair. “Please duck under your desk.”

Within four minutes, a crisis headquarters was up and running across the street in the prime minister’s office. Kan rushed there as soon as the shaking subsided. At 3:37 p.m. he convened a roundtable of his top advisers.

Soon after the tsunami hit, Kan’s task force was deluged by reports of massive damage up and down the coast, aerial photos and video showing entire villages gone.

Kan, who majored in applied physics in college, was among the first whose attention went to the 40-year-old nuclear plant, according to Kenichi Shimomura, a senior aide who was with him. The prime minister demanded an assessment. Economic Times

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