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

Asahi - Shadow Units (19)

April 15, 2013


PROMETHEUS TRAP/ 'Shadow units’ (19): Highest alert level ordered for first time since 1995 sarin attack





Editor's note: This is the 19th 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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Japan’s Self-Defense Forces use four levels of protective gear for operations in toxic environments, such as the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

Such gear is collectively called “mission oriented protective posture,” or MOPP. The highest level 4 of MOPP means that maximum possible protective gear should be used to be ready for the danger posed by nuclear, biological or chemical contamination.

A little after 9 p.m. on March 14, Maj. Gen. Hidetoshi Horiguchi, who was serving as commander of the Ground Self-Defense Force’s 12th Brigade, issued an order for MOPP 4 protection at Camp Koriyama in Fukushima Prefecture. The brigade was engaged in an operation to help victims of the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 plant that had broken out three days before.

MOPP 4 required SDF personnel to wear thick protective suits over their camouflage fatigues and boots over their boots. They also had to wear protective masks.

Members of Horiguchi’s brigade hastily donned all their protective gear in response to his order.

The brigade commander had been informed of the possibility of a core meltdown occurring at 10:20 p.m. He received that information from the GDSF’s Central Readiness Force, which was responding to the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 plant.

Horiguchi also ordered all brigade members to suspend their activities to help disaster victims and take refuge inside buildings. He also told them to urge local residents to get indoors.

To prevent human exposure to radiation as much as possible, Horiguchi walked around in the headquarters building, closing windows and doors.

But nothing occurred at 10:20 p.m., the time when a meltdown was expected to take place.

Horiguchi tried repeatedly to reach a director at the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency to find out whether the information he had received was accurate or not.

One hour later, he finally found himself speaking with the director over the phone.

While Horiguchi was drenched in sweat after working fervently in heavy protective clothing, there was no tension in the voice of the official at the other end of the phone.

“We have made no announcement of a meltdown,” said the agency director. “The situation at the nuclear power plant has been improving.”

“Are you telling the truth?” yelled Horiguchi. “That’s not what I’ve heard. Give me a call after checking out the facts,” he shouted as he hung up.

Half an hour later, Horiguchi received a call from the director. There had actually been danger of a meltdown, but the danger had been averted, according to the official’s explanation.

Horiguchi lifted the MOPP 4 order at 12:15 a.m. on March 15, three hours after he issued it.

The actual situation, however, had been more serious than the director’s explanation had suggested it to be.

Pressure within the containment vessel of the No. 2 reactor rose to a level that could trigger an explosion. Masataka Shimizu, president of Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the crippled plant, had asked the prime minister’s office to allow the utility to evacuate its workers from the facility.

The Fukushima plant was in the most critical situation during several hours between the night of March 14 and the wee hours of the morning on March 15. Horiguchi was not provided with detailed information about these and other developments during that period.

Horiguchi immediately restarted his brigade’s rescue operation, but the three hours of suspension had caused some unwanted effects.

An angry Koriyama Mayor Masao Hara called the headquarters of the 12th Brigade at Camp Koriyama.

“As you suddenly stopped the water supply operations, residents are in big trouble,” Hara said. “What are you doing?”

Horiguchi explained in great detail about the unfolding chain of events to update the mayor.

The order to use MOPP 4 protection issued by Horiguchi was the only second such action taken in the history of the SDF, and the first since the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult launched the sarin attack on the Tokyo subway system in March 1995.

But the order was issued amid great confusion without the public’s knowledge.


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