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Ex-fire department head regrets issuing order to spray water on Fukushima nuclear plant




A former head of the Tokyo Fire Department expressed regret for ordering firefighters to spray water into the crippled Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant in March last year while their safety was not guaranteed.

"I still believe I shouldn't be forgiven for issuing the order as the safety of my subordinates was not confirmed," Yuji Arai, who headed the fire department when the operation was conducted, said in an exclusive interview with the Mainichi Shimbun. He left his post in July last year.

Firefighters deployed to the plant were successful in spraying water into the building housing the plant's No. 3 reactors in the predawn hours of March 19, 2011.

Arai said he dispatched firefighters to the tsunami-hit nuclear power station at the urging of Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara.

He called the governor at around 6 p.m. on March 17 at the request of a Tokyo Metropolitan Government official.

"The prime minister says the Tokyo Fire Department is reluctant to cooperate with the national government. Is it true?" Ishihara asked Arai on the phone.

Arai replied that the Tokyo Fire Department was already cooperating in rescue and relief operations by dispatching special disaster countermeasure vehicles on March 16 and by taking other steps.

The governor said he would contact then Prime Minister Naoto Kan again.

Ishihara subsequently called Arai and told him, "The central government is terribly confused. There is no other choice. The government says it will officially ask the Tokyo Fire Department to dispatch personnel to the site if you're prepared to do it. Is that all right?"

The fire department chief replied, "We're prepared, so we'll dispatch personnel."

Arai said he deemed that he must dispatch personnel after confirming on the morning of March 17 that Self-Defense Force helicopters' spraying of water onto the crippled plant did not produce positive results. He then launched a large-scale drill by spraying water on the bank of the Arakawa River in Tokyo.

"By evening, we had been notified that water could be supplied for fire engines at the site within 15 minutes," he said, adding that Yoshihiro Yamaguchi, professor at Kyorin University's medical school and disaster relief adviser, reassured the department by advising it on how to avoid exposure to radiation.

However, he was worried about a possible explosion due to a lack of information. "What we were worried about most was that absolutely no information was available on the plant's No. 4 reactor, and that the possibility that it would blow up couldn't be ruled out."

Nevertheless, the fire department chief was forced to dispatch personnel to the nuclear plant.

"We had no choice under such a critical situation. However, since my most important responsibility is to guarantee the safety of my subordinates in their operations, my issuance of the order constitutes negligence of my responsibilities," he said. "I still feel it was contradictory."

Arai also said the department had not been notified that there was a radiation-proof building on the premises of the nuclear plant.

"Even the Fire and Disaster Management Agency of the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry didn't know the existence of the facility and we were never informed of it. If we had known about the facility, we could have used it as a base for our operations," he said.

"Even the ministry only learned of the facility after we lodged a protest. Out of reflection on its slow response to the (January 1995) Great Hanshin and Awaji Earthquake, the government set up a crisis management center at the Prime Minister's Office. It should have shared necessary information on disasters with relevant organizations but failed to do so," he said. "The reason for the failure is the lack of a coordinator in response to the disaster. It's the most serious problem we should reflect on."

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