TEPCO’s Darkest Secret
By DAVID McNEILL and JAKE ADELSTEIN
It is one of the mysteries of Japan’s ongoing nuclear crisis: How much damage did the March 11 earthquake do to the Fukushima Daiichi reactors before the tsunami hit? The stakes are high: If the quake structurally compromised the plant and the safety of its nuclear fuel, then every other similar reactor in Japan will have to be reviewed and possibly shut down. With virtually all of Japan’s 54 reactors either offline (35) or scheduled for shutdown by next April, the issue of structural safety looms over the decision to restart every one in the months and years after.
The key question for operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) and its regulators to answer is this: How much damage was inflicted on the Daiichi plant before the first tsunami reached the plant roughly 40 minutes after the earthquake? TEPCO and the Japanese government are hardly reliable adjudicators in this controversy. “There has been no meltdown,” top government spokesman Edano Yukio famously repeated in the days after March 11. “It was an unforeseeable disaster,” Tepco’s then President Shimizu Masataka improbably said later. As we now know, meltdown was already occurring even as Edano spoke. And far from being unforeseeable, the disaster had been repeatedly forewarned.
Throughout the months of lies and misinformation, one story has stuck: “The earthquake knocked out the plant’s electric power, halting cooling to its six reactors. The tsunami – a unique, one-off event – then washed out the plant’s back-up generators, shutting down all cooling and starting the chain of events that would cause the world’s first triple meltdown. That line has now become gospel at TEPCO. “We had no idea that a tsunami was coming,” said Murata Yasuki, head of public relations for the now ruined facility. “It came completely out of the blue” (nemimi ni mizu datta). Safety checks have since focused heavily on future damage from tsunamis.But what if recirculation pipes and cooling pipes burst, snapped, leaked, and broke completely after the earthquake — before the tidal wave reached the facilities and before the electricity went out? This would surprise few people familiar with the nearly 40-year-old reactor one, the grandfather of the nuclear reactors still operating in Japan.