21 Mars 2013
March 20, 2013
Editor's note: This is the eighth 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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After surviving the explosion at the No. 3 reactor of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant on March 14, 2011, Col. Shinji Iwakuma, a unit commander within the Central NBC Weapon Defense Unit, headed for the central government's off-site command post.
First, Iwakuma had to undergo the decontamination process in the building next door. But he was fortunate to have escaped injury in the blast.
One of his unit members suffered a cracked spine, which would require one month to heal. Three other personnel suffered bruises. It was only later that Iwakuma learned that the unit member who was exposed to the highest radiation level totaled an exposure of 27.4 millisieverts.
After entering the off-site center, located five kilometers southwest of the plant, where a local response headquarters had been established to deal with the nuclear accident, Iwakuma was checked for radiation a number of times at the entrance. Even after showering eight times, he was unable to completely rid his body of radioactive materials.
A worker who was handling the radiation measurement suggested to Iwakuma that he wear protective gear, not to protect him from further exposure, but to prevent him from bringing the radioactive materials into the center.
Tables were arranged in a U-shape fashion in a large conference room. Iwakuma sat in the seat reserved for the individual with the least authority. The meeting began with six to seven participants, including Motohisa Ikeda, the senior vice minister of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, who was serving as head of the local response headquarters.
In addition to the protective gear, Iwakuma also wore slippers reserved for patients at a medical facility. He was the only one at the meeting dressed in that manner.
Officials of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency and Tokyo Electric Power Co. spoke in a businesslike manner. While there was a brief mention of the explosion at the beginning of the meeting, most of the discussion focused on the situation at the reactor core and how to cool it.
Iwakuma was the last one allowed to speak.
He had spent many years in research and development of chemicals. His slim frame and the glasses he wore gave him the appearance of a quiet scholar. So, he took the others by surprise when he said in a stern tone, "It was my subordinates who were injured. Did you know beforehand that an explosion was possible or did it occur because of an error in how things were handled? Tell me which is it!"
Silence fell over the meeting.
The meeting ended without any reply to Iwakuma's question.
Immediately thereafter, a TEPCO official ran up to Iwakuma and bowed.
"I am truly sorry for the terrible thing that has happened," the official said.
The decision to have Iwakuma and his unit head for the No. 3 reactor was made earlier that morning.
Ikeda made the request. "The situation is one which requires water to be pumped in immediately," he said. "The Self-Defense Force is the only one we can ask."
Before leaving for the reactor, Iwakuma asked TEPCO officials about the situation at the reactor. Although the details were unclear and radiation levels were high, a TEPCO official would guide the unit. The explanation was also made that workers were still at the site.
That led Iwakuma to conclude that the possibility of an explosion was low. Because of the urgency of the matter, his unit headed to supply water in a lightly equipped vehicle.
According to a recording of a TEPCO teleconference that was only released much later, white haze had formed at the No. 3 reactor from the afternoon of March 13, 2011. Because a similar chain of events occurred at the No. 1 reactor before an earlier explosion there, TEPCO officials were on the alert for an explosion at the No. 3 reactor.
However, that important piece of information was never given to Iwakuma.
Editor's note: This is the seventh 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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The six personnel of the Ground Self-Defense Force's Central NBC Weapon Defense Unit were exposed to radiation as a result of the hydrogen explosion at the No. 3 reactor of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant on March 14, 2011.
They showered at the Fukushima prefectural environmental medical research institute in an attempt to wash away the radiation. Specialists from the National Institute of Radiological Sciences checked radiation levels in the room next to the showers.
"The radiation level still has not fallen," one specialist said.
The SDF member returned to the shower room for another round of washing and scrubbing.
"It's still high. One more time."
The soldier took another shower.
"Still not enough. There is still a lot of radiation around your face."
The unit commander, Col. Shinji Iwakuma, ended up showering eight times.
Because he had no clothes to wear, he put on new protective gear while wearing nothing underneath.
He looked around at the other personnel in his unit. While there was a soldier who was injured, they were all talking, so a relieved Iwakuma said, "I am glad to see that everyone is all right."
Iwakuma described the reactor explosion to Lt. Col. Kazunori Hishinuma, another unit member.
Iwakuma explained that to supply water to the No. 3 reactor to prevent a meltdown of its reactor core, he and another member headed for the Fukushima No. 1 plant in a retrofitted Pajero SUV, manufactured by Mitsubishi Motors Corp. The four other personnel followed in two five-ton water tankers.
At around 11 a.m., the group stopped next to the water supply pump near the No. 3 reactor. As they were about to open the door, the explosion occurred.
In addition to the blast, the force from the explosion blew the Pajero to the side. Chunks of concrete came raining down, cracking the vehicle windows and smashing through the canvas roof. Some of the larger chunks were 30 centimeters long. Gray smoke swirled in the area.
Iwakuma kicked the door out to escape the vehicle. The dosimeter was blaring away, a warning that accumulated radiation levels exceeded 20 millisieverts.
They tried using their radio to contact the off-site center, but could not get through.
"We will become exposed to radiation if we remain here for long," Iwakuma told the other personnel. "We are leaving the area."
Abandoning their vehicles, they walked back along the road they had traveled. There were a dozen or so plant workers also walking unsteadily away.
They spotted an abandoned truck with the keys still in the ignition. They loaded the plant workers onto the truck and received permission to have an SDF member drive it away.
They left the truck at the main gate because they felt they should not take the vehicle off the plant grounds. They hitched a ride in another truck that happened to pass by and finally reached the off-site center.
After Iwakuma concluded his explanation to Hishinuma, he said sternly, "Tokyo Electric Power Co. officials explained that the situation was not so dangerous that an explosion would occur. I wonder if TEPCO officials knew about the danger of an explosion. It would be a major problem if they had us go to the plant knowing about that danger."
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