FRI MAR 11, 2:46 PM. TOKYO. Seismic monitors detect the impending earthquake, triggering an automatic shutdown of Japan Railway’s bullet trains. The railway’s 27 high-speed trains quickly brake to a safe stop about fifteen seconds before the earthquake begins. Hundreds of regional and local trains and subways are notified by other means that an earthquake is happening and engineers stop all trains in their tracks. All platform departures are suspended.
Eleven nuclear reactors at Onagawa, Fukushima and Tokai begin automatic shutdown, as part of their standard operating protocol, in response to the onset of the earthquake.
Television and radio broadcasts are interrupted by the emergency public broadcast system, which announces the presently occurring earthquake’s intensity and geographic distribution. Drivers are instructed to use caution, while building occupants are advised to seek safety immediately.
An orderly first response in an orderly country.
FRI MAR 11, 3:41 PM. FUKUSHIMA POWER PLANTS. The tsunami arrives at the Fukushima Daiichi and Fukushima Daini power plants, at heights of 10 and 12 meters, surging over the seawalls specifically built to protect the facilities from such surges. The seawater fills the basements of the reactor buildings at Fukushima Daiichi, where emergency diesel generators are housed. The diesel generators are designed to be used as part of the facility’s fail-safe system, which includes electricity generated by the power plant itself, plus electricity from its connection to the outside grid, plus power from the reactor’s steam-driven cooling system.
Three of Daiichi’s six nuclear reactors are in hot shutdown mode when the tsunami arrives, with fuel rods having been automatically removed fifty-five minutes before, when sensors detected the impending earthquake. With the earthquake itself having damaged the region’s electricity grid, and with a general power blackout throughout much of eastern Japan, the power plants are, ironically, out of power. The diesel generators at the site, which have been running during the hour between the earthquake and the tsunami, are rendered inoperable once they have been submerged in seawater.
With the fail-safe generators no longer usable, batteries are placed in service. With the batteries connected, cooling water is circulated through the two largest reactors that are in hot shutdown: units 2 and 3. But engineers are unable to make this work for the smaller unit 1. The lifespan of the batteries is limited, and desperate calls are made for replacements. No follow-up to this is recorded.
The batteries are exhausted eleven hours later and the plant is without any means to pump its all-important cooling water through the reactors.
FRI MAR 11, 9:00 PM. FUTABA, FUKUSHIMA PREF. Within two hours of the tsunami’s arrival, the government declares a nuclear emergency, and three hours later at 9 p.m., it issues a general evacuation order for citizens living within three kilometers of Fukushima Daiichi. The Fukushima Daiichi complex has six reactors, each housed in separate containment buildings situated close to each other. The evacuation order includes farmers and rural residents living near the complex, also the citizens of the nearby towns of Futaba and Ōkuma.
Futaba, a coastal town of 7,248 residents, is reeling from near-complete devastation. A municipal official states that 90% of the town’s houses have been washed away by the tsunami. At this time it is unknown how many have been killed or swept out to sea. [Later the tally is listed as twenty-five.] The temperature is close to the freezing point, rain is falling, darkness has been upon the scene for three hours, and there is nothing to do but leave as ordered. The unaccounted-for victims will be left uninterred: a death without dignity. There will be no returning.
Ōkuma, a town of 11,159 residents, situated a few kilometers inland from Futaba, has not been damaged by the tsunami. Although portions of Ōkuma are within the three-kilometer radius, other portions of it – including the hospital – are just outside the nuclear evacuation zone and become a temporary refuge for the evacuees.
SAT MAR 12, 6:50 AM. FUKUSHIMA DAIICHI. The situation has spun out of control to the point where no water has been circulating over the hot fuel rods of unit number 1 for the past eleven hours.
Although unknown to the nuclear engineers at this time, later analysis determines that the fuel rods of this reactor have slumped to the bottom of the reactor pressure vessel: in layman’s terms, there has been a meltdown.
Throughout the crisis the word “meltdown” is carefully avoided by all: by engineers who are careful to hide the unraveling situation with technical jargon; by politicians worrying about panic in Tokyo; and for the most part even by journalists who are eager to use their new-found vocabulary of becquerels and millisieverts. It will be a long time before officials suggest that the worsening situation could result in a meltdown.
SAT MAR 12, 3:30 PM. TOMIOKA, FUKUSHIMA PREF. The government issues a general evacuation order for citizens living within three kilometers of Fukushima Daini, the sister complex situated eleven kilometers south of Fukushima Daiichi. The Fukushima Daini complex has four reactors.
This evacuation order includes the citizens of the nearby towns of Tomioka with a population of 15,696, and Naraha with a population of 8,171. Tomioka, situated on the coast, has been heavily damaged by the tsunami. [Later it will be determined that 767 residents have had their homes swept out to sea. The nearby town of Naraha, which has twice the population of Tomioka, but is situated farther inland, suffers equal losses: 770 residents are homeless due to the tsunami.] With this order to evacuate, those who escaped the tsunami’s devastation now join their less fortunate neighbors and become refugees themselves.
Simultaneous with this order, the government widens the previous evacuation order for Fukushima Daiichi from three kilometers to ten. The coastal town of Namie, with a population of 21,531 falls within this new radius. It has been heavily damaged by the tsunami, with more than fifty lives lost and more than two thousand of its citizens having their homes swept to sea. With this new order, 90% of the remaining residents are officially rendered homeless too. Only 24 hours have passed since the tsunami struck, and the search for survivors and casualties is incomplete. Just as in Futaba yesterday, the proper removal and cremation of the dead must be foregone, and bodies are left to the indignity of exposure, decay, and irradiation.
All of Ōkuma now falls under the general evacuation order, and the remainder of its citizens, together with the refugees that arrived yesterday from Futaba, depart for makeshift shelters further inland.
Six minutes later, at 3:36 p.m., a massive explosion occurs at Fukushima Daiichi’s unit 1. The concrete containment building that surrounds the steel reactor vessel – which is designed to contain leaking radiation during emergencies such as this – is completely destroyed as the roof is blown off and the walls collapse. Officials are quick to calm the public’s fears by assuring everyone that this was simply a hydrogen explosion, that the reactor itself did not appear to be damaged by the explosion, and that the release of radiation was minor. Prior to the explosion, engineers had known of the hydrogen buildup, and six and one-half hours earlier had begun the controlled release of radioactive vapor from the containment building.
Later it will be reported by hospital officials that 22 nearby residents have detectable levels of radiation exposure.
SAT MAR 12, 8:18 PM. The evacuation order is extended to all persons living within twenty kilometers of the Daiichi nuclear power plant. The cumulative number of people now under orders to evacuate reaches 139,000.
MON MAR 14, 11:01 AM. FUKUSHIMA DAIICHI. Thirty-nine hours after the first explosion, at unit 1, a second hydrogen explosion occurs, this time destroying the containment building that houses reactor unit 3. The makeshift cooling water system, that has been pumping seawater for the past two days, is suspended. Three nuclear reactors are in peril.
MON MAR 14. TOKYO. Tokyo Electric Power Company, TEPCO, announces that rolling blackouts are planned for Tokyo and eight surrounding prefectures. They report that the unprecedented measure is necessary due to insufficient capacity resulting from the ongoing nuclear power plant shutdowns at Onagawa, Fukushima Daiichi and Fukushima Daini. The outages will last from 3 to 6 hours, and will affect each of five designated zones on a rotating basis.
TUE MAR 15. FUKUSHIMA DAIICHI. A fire occurs in unit 4 and damages the building’s upper levels where spent-fuel rods are stored. The spent-fuel rods are the waste product from the reactor. They are dangerously radioactive. They have been kept on-site pending the approval of a long-term disposal facility.
Shortly after, a third hydrogen explosion occurs, this time in the containment building for reactor unit 2. Damage to the building’s outer skin is not obvious.
A fourth explosion occurs, this time at unit 4, causing additional damage beyond what had occurred earlier due to the fire. Despite the fact that unit 4 was in cold shutdown (for routine maintenance) at the time of the earthquake, the fire and explosion in the storage pool that holds spent-fuel rods highlights the dangerous potential of the plant’s storage pools. Without power being restored to the circulating water system, the storage pools are boiling, their water is evaporating, and concerns are raised that the fuel rods could become exposed to the atmosphere. Similar concerns are expressed for the pools at units 5 and 6, also in cold shutdown; however, cooling systems become operational for these two nearby units.
WED MAR 16. FUKUSHIMA DAIICHI. A second fire occurs in unit 4’s spent-fuel pool.
THU MAR 17, 10:00 AM. FUKUSHIMA DAIICHI. Military helicopters carrying oversized water-bags, normally used in fighting wildfires, fly over unit 3 in an attempt to drop their payloads into the pool used to store spent-fuel rods. The ongoing radioactive decay of the rods has caused their bathwater to boil and evaporate; without power to circulate cool water through the pools, they are in imminent danger of a meltdown. The containment buildings for units 1, 3, and 4 are twisted wrecks of steel girders and concrete rubble, without roofs, open to the environment. Although the desperate airdrops could conceivably work, the intense radioactive heat forces the helicopter to fly too high overhead, and the water turns to mist as it is dropped; moreover, the gusty offshore sea breeze prevents nearly all of it from successfully reaching its target. The military abandons the effort after just four attempts.
FRI MAR 18, 3:00 AM. FUKUSHIMA DAIICHI. The Tokyo Fire Department is dispatched to the site; they send 139 firemen with thirty-five fire engines. Using special cannon-style water spouts, they spray water over the boiling pools of spent-fuel rods. With a rotating crew working in shifts, they are successful in reducing the temperature readings.
SAT MAR 19. FUKUSHIMA DAIICHI. In order to limit their total exposure to radiation, the first set of firefighters is relieved by a second team of 153 additional firefighters from Tokyo and Osaka.
SUN MAR 20. FUKUSHIMA DAIICHI. External power to unit 2 becomes available for the first time. There is a general sense, for the first time in nine days, that the upper hand in the crisis has been gained. Nevertheless, even with electricity available on site from the outside grid, the necessary parts to connect the new power source to the equipment at the plant are not available.
MON MAR 21, 3:55 PM. FUKUSHIMA DAIICHI. The hopeful news of power at the site is a short-lived reprieve. Grey smoke comes out of unit 3, near its spent-fuel pool, for two hours. Shortly after the unexplained smoke from unit 3 dies down, unit 2 spews irradiated vapor. Even more critically, the freshly available power supply is of little use because the cooling pumps for the units that are in hot shutdown mode (units 1, 2, and 3) are all damaged beyond repair.
APR 12, 2011. TOKYO. The government raises its assessment of the situation, on the International Nuclear Event scale, to its highest level of 7; this is now classified as a “major accident.” In the early days of the crisis, despite international criticism, the Japanese government held to its assessment that the unfolding events warranted a moderate classification as a level 4 event, an “accident with local consequences.” Only after seven days of chaos, including four explosions, two fires, intentional releases of irradiated waste into international waters, and unsuccessful attempts to drop water from helicopters did the government raise the assessment to level 5, “accident with wider consequences,” on March 18th. Today’s assessment, without any new data, is made 31 days after the start of the crisis.
APR 21, 2011. TOKYO. A new law is passed to make it illegal to enter the twenty-kilometer evacuation zone. The villages of Iitate, Katsurao, and parts of Kawamata, outside the twenty-kilometer zone, but within a radiation hotspot, are added to the exclusion zone.
MAY 16, 2011. FUKUSHIMA DAIICHI. Tokyo Electric Power Company, TEPCO admits that a meltdown occurred in reactor number 1 just sixteen hours after the earthquake. This admission occurs 65 days after the fact.
It will be more weeks before TEPCO admits that partial meltdowns occurred in all three reactors that were in hot shutdown mode at the time of the tsunami, and in all four spent-fuel pools at the site.
SEP 7, 2011. TOKYO. Naoto Kan, who last week stepped down as Prime Minister, reveals what he faced in the days immediately after March 11th. In an interview with the Asahi Shimbun, he says, “If the evacuation zone had expanded to 100, 200 or 300 kilometers, it would have included the whole Kanto region.
“That would have forced 30 million people to evacuate, compromising the very existence of the Japanese nation. That’s the biggest reason why I changed my views on nuclear power.
“If there are risks of accidents that could make half the land mass of our country uninhabitable, we cannot afford to take such risks, even if we are only going to be playing with those risks once a century.”
MAY 28, 2012. TOKYO. Former Prime Minister Naoto Kan appeared before a parliamentary committee that is investigating the government's handling of the Fukushima crisis.
In a statement to the committee, he warned that the politically cozy “nuclear village” has shown no remorse for the accident, and is trying to push Japan toward further reliance on nuclear power.
Kan's stern warning was unequivocal, “Experiencing the accident convinced me that the best way to make nuclear plants safe is not to rely on them, but rather to get rid of them.”