The command center at Japan’s stricken nuclear plant shook violently when hydrogen exploded at one reactor, and the plant chief shouted: “This is serious! This is serious!” videos taken during last year’s crisis reveal.
Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) initially refused to release the footage, but the company is now under state control and was ordered to do so. The videos, seen on Monday, are mainly of teleconferences between company headquarters in Tokyo and staff at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant after the March 11 tsunami critically damaged its reactors.
In the videos, then-plant chief Masao Yoshida can be heard complaining about phone calls to the prime minister’s office not getting through and expressing frustration over interference from government nuclear safety officials whose technical advice did not fit conditions at the stricken plant.
In footage taken at about 11am on March 15, Yoshida screams to utility officials: “Headquarters! This is serious, this is serious! The No. 3 unit. I think this is a hydrogen explosion. We just had an explosion.”
“I can’t see anything from here because of heavy smoke,” Yoshida said.
In the background, officials can be heard shouting questions about radiation levels and other data. The massive earthquake and tsunami that hit northeast Japan knocked out the cooling systems that kept the reactors’ nuclear material stable, causing a meltdown of the three reactors’ cores, releasing large amounts of radiation.
As workers struggled to assess the situation, they fell behind media reports. A voice from an off-site emergency center says he saw the explosion on TV news.
The structures housing three of the reactors suffered hydrogen explosions after gas filled the unvented buildings, and the blasts spewed radiation and delayed repair work. To try to halt the explosions, the videos show officials even considered dropping a hammer from a helicopter to make a hole in the ceiling, but they scrapped the idea because it was too dangerous.
The footage reveals communication problems between the plant and the government, as well as workers’ lack of knowledge of emergency procedures and delays in informing outsiders about the risks of leaking radiation.
Just after the Unit 3 explosion, plant officials and TEPCO executives discussed extensively whether to call it a hydrogen explosion. The videos also showed they failed to notify officials outside TEPCO and residents about the March 14 meltdown at another unit, No. 2, or even provide data crucial for evacuation.
“Are we providing a release on this?” TEPCO vice president Sakae Muto asks, while discussing the meltdown of Unit 2’s reactor core.
A plant worker says no, while another executive, Akio Komori, instructs workers to conduct radiation monitoring because they might have to evacuate at some point.
To this, another TEPCO official replies that he does not know the evacuation procedures contained in an emergency manual: “Sorry, that’s not in my head.”
After the March 12 explosion at Unit 1, dozens of workers were highly exposed to radiation, and the videos reveal that TEPCO officials debated how they could allow extra exposures without getting in trouble.
“They can go home and take a bath and open their pores” to wash off contamination, one official suggests.
Days later, the government raised the maximum exposure levels to more than double the usual limit for emergency operation.