17 Avril 2013
April 17, 2013
Editor's note: This is the 20th 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 strong earthquake registering a lower 6 on the Japanese seismic scale of 7 rocked Fukushima Prefecture on the evening of April 11, 2011.
The temblor was reminiscent of the devastating quake that had ravaged wide areas in northeastern Japan and triggered the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant just one month before.
The Ground Self-Defense Force’s Central Readiness Force (CRF), a shadow unit, was engaged in operations to deal with the nuclear crisis, using J-Village, the soccer training complex in Naraha, a town in Fukushima Prefecture, as its operational base.
As he felt the intense shaking on the April evening, Maj. Gen. Masato Taura, deputy commander of the CRF, thought this time around his unit would really have to mobilize.
Taura barked out an order to the firefighting team to immediately prepare for a mission in a louder tone of voice than usual.
As massive injections of water into the crippled reactors to cool them using concrete pump trucks had started, the Self-Defense Forces had not been engaged in water spraying operations since the end of March.
Every time an aftershock had occurred, Taura had gotten members of the unit to stand by in fire engines, but he had not actually called out the troops so far.
Immediately after the major aftershock in April, Taura talked to a young employee of Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the stricken plant, who was serving as a liaison at J-Village.
“We are ready for watering operations. Are the reactors all right?” asked Taura. “I myself have no idea,” replied the TEPCO employee.
At that time, the makeshift pumps for cooling the No. 1–3 reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant had actually stopped, disrupting the injection of water into the reactor buildings. But no information about the situation had been conveyed to Taura.
The firefighting unit remained standing by, until, about an hour later, it received a situational report from the utility.
“The injection of water has been resumed, and there has been no other problem,” the report said.
The report came after steps to fix the problem had been taken.
Taura wondered what TEPCO had intended to do if an emergency had broken out while it had been working to fix the problem.
He remembered an incident that had occurred in late March, when TEPCO considered venting to reduce the mounting pressure within the reactors as a step to prevent hydrogen explosions.
Despite the utility saying it had decided against venting, rumors circulated that the company had taken the step.
Venting would have led to the release of radioactive materials into the atmosphere and exposed SDF personnel engaged in water-spraying operations to a health hazard.
As it turned out, TEPCO, in fact, didn’t carry out the venting. But the difficulty of gaining accurate information from TEPCO’s head office caused serious confusion at the front line of operations to deal with the nuclear crisis.
One month had passed since the nuclear crisis started, but the company was still unable effectively to cope with the situation.
Later, Taura asked a senior TEPCO executive to establish a clear chain of command for dealing with emergencies.
The only action the utility took in response to his request, however, was to send a list of the cellphone numbers of top TEPCO officials.
At that time, the Central Readiness Regiment, which belongs to the CRF, was preparing for a secret mission to rescue TEPCO employees at the Fukushima plant if the need arose.
Given the state of affairs at that time, the regiment would have to carry out the mission without accurate information about the situation at the plant. Taura decided to meet with the TEPCO official in charge of the company’s response to the crisis at the site.
On April 21, Taura called on Masao Yoshida, 57, then chief of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.