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information about Fukushima published in English in Japanese media info publiée en anglais dans la presse japonaise

Asahi - Shadow Units (12)

March 29, 2013


PROMETHEUS TRAP/ 'Shadow units' (12): Should SDF really take over fire department’s task?





Editor's note: This is the 12th part of a new series that has run in the past under the title of The Prometheus Trap. This series deals with the secret missions assigned to the “shadow units” of the Ground Self-Defense Force when the Fukushima nuclear disaster was unfolding following the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. The series will appear on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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A week after the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake, the site of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant was a scene of utter chaos.

The grounds were clogged with fire engines, heavy machinery, transport vehicles and other types of machines and vehicles belonging to police, the fire department, the Self-Defense Forces and Tokyo Electric Power Co.

The compound was also teeming with people from these organizations.

On March 17, 2011, the previous day, the SDF and police had carried out operations to spray water on the overheating No. 3 reactor from the ground. High-pressure water cannon trucks were used for the operations.

In order to prevent the crippled reactors from spiraling out of control, various organizations had deployed a broad array of vehicles and machinery to the Fukushima plant.

But there was no one who was supposed to take command of all the organizations to lead the efforts to contain the nuclear crisis.

Concerned about the situation, the prime minister’s office on that day issued a directive that the SDF should supervise the operations at the plant.

The principal reason for the government’s decision was that the SDF had accumulated much experience in responding to disasters and other emergencies, including such situations overseas.

Maj. Gen. Masato Taura, 51, vice commanding general of the Ground Self-Defense Force’s Central Readiness Force (CRF), was appointed as head of the on-site coordination. It was decided that Taura and Maj. Gen. Yuki Imaura, who was also the CRF’s vice commanding general, would take turns directing operations at the plant on a five-day rotating basis.

Taura had commanded SDF operations in Iraq and also in Haiti following the devastating earthquake in 2010.

The first thing he did was to convene a general meeting of top officials of the organizations involved.

In front of the top officials, Taura deliberately took a lower seat in a display of deference. He thought things would not work well if the SDF tried to exert strong control over the proceedings.

“I’ve been appointed to serve as a coordinator,” Taura said, indicating his intention to work behind the scenes, and smiled.

He soon faced the first test of his ability to handle this delicate situation.

Shortly past 10 p.m., the grim-faced chief of the Tokyo Fire Department unit deployed to the disabled nuclear power plant was on the phone, apparently getting a dressing-down.

The fire department’s mission to spray water on the No. 3 reactor had been delayed by about five hours, as huge amounts of debris were blocking fire engines from approaching the reactor.

The fire chief was being berated for the delay by an official at the government’s nuclear emergency response headquarters who had called the chief.

“What are you doing?” the caller roared. “If you can’t do it right now, let the SDF do it.”

As Taura took the phone from the fire chief, the caller was also replaced by an SDF officer on the other end.

Taura asked the officer whether headquarters was really demanding that the SDF take over the mission.

“Yes, they are demanding that.”

Taura thought that headquarters didn’t understand the situation at the plant. If the SDF took over the mission, that would damage the morale of the firefighters of the Tokyo Fire Department.

Taura explained the situation at the plant to the SDF officer on the phone.

Roads in the site were littered with debris, making it impossible for two vehicles to travel past each other. There was no detour, either. It would take at least three hours for the SDF unit to make the necessary preparations to spray water on the reactor. In addition, the fire department could deliver more water on the target than the SDF. After describing the situation, Taura said to the SDF officer, “Ask headquarters again whether we should still take over the mission.”

Headquarters withdrew the order.

The Tokyo Fire Department’s unit succeeded in spraying water on the reactor before dawn on March 19. After hearing the news, Taura shook hands with the fire brigade chief and noticed tears in his eyes.

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