What rules, you ask? Good social rules like "If you want something from a store, you purchase it with money." Or "In order to transport potentially dangerous materials or equipments, you apply for a government permit and wait until the permit is issued." They are all good and proper in peacetime.
TEPCO was no longer in peacetime, starting March 11, 2011. But the company and the workers clearly didn't know how to operate in an extraordinary situation they found themselves in. So they stuck to what they knew best - be a law- and rule- abiding good citizens.
From the teleconference video that TEPCO newly released, at 7:17AM of March 13, 2011 at Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant (Video 05-06 at TEPCO's Photos and Video page for October 5, 2012):
This is Materials Group, sorry to interrupt. We are going out to buy batteries and other things. But, uh.., we're short on cash. For those of you who have cash with you here, we would really appreciate if you could lend it to us. We're sorry [and embarrassed] but if you have cash, could you let us borrow it? Thank you in advance.
After this announcement, a senior executive (I believe it's Mr. Komori in TEPCO's Headquarters in Tokyo) is heard muttering, "No money? That is miserable. We have to do something..."
Asahi Shinbun transcribed the entire 150 hours of TEPCO's teleconference video, and has written several articles (subscribers only) about their findings. This battery episode was in the third installment of the series of articles that were published in early September. The following is my summary of the situation, based on the Asahi Shinbun article on September 5, 2012, based on their own transcription of the video:
Early morning on March 13, 2011 (28 hours or so before the Reactor 3 building exploded). TEPCO's workers had figured out that by rigging up the car batteries they could provide just enough power to operate the main steam safety-relief valve (SR valve) to release pressure inside the Reactor 3 Pressure Vessel. Ten 12-volt batteries were all they needed for that operation for the moment, they figured. The problem was that they didn't have 10. They asked the workers with cars to please remove the batteries so that they could be used.
20 car batteries were offered. But they needed more. Much more, in order to monitor the conditions of Reactor 3 and Reactor 2. The monitoring systems in the central control room were also down, because of lack of electricity. They needed the batteries in the order of 50, 100.
Iwaki City was 30 kilometers south of the plant, and there were big auto parts stores in the city. So, TEPCO workers decided to drive down there and buy car batteries at the store.
But 8 car batteries were all they managed to buy in Iwaki City. Asahi Shinbun article doesn't say whether it was lack of money or lack of inventory at the auto parts stores.
It was not that TEPCO's Headquarters in Tokyo had sat paralyzed. It had already ordered 1,000 batteries from Toshiba on March 12 and arranged for having them shipped to the plant immediately.
There was a problem. A government permit was needed, apparently, to transport that many batteries on the highway, and the permit was not readily coming. The vehicle loaded with 1,000 batteries couldn't leave Tokyo unless the issue of the permit was resolved somehow.
In the end, 320 of 1,000 batteries did arrive at the plant, in the evening of March 14, long after the Reactor 3 explosion. The core inside the Reactor 2 Pressure Vessel had already been exposed.
This single episode, I believe, epitomizes what's fundamentally wrong with the Japanese in a crisis situation: They cannot break rules.
So they couldn't monitor the reactors, couldn't open the SR valve, but knew if they had batteries, even the car batteries and plenty of them, they would be able to do both. If they didn't, there would be core melt, and a large amount of radioactive materials would be released. It was not the time to observe rules and regulations imposed by the society or the government.
1. Instead of going all the way to Iwaki City to buy car batteries, they could have stopped any and every car and truck they encountered outside the plant, asked, begged, threatened, the drivers to give up their car batteries because otherwise there would be multiple meltdowns at the nuclear plant.
What would the drivers do? Refuse? Somehow, I don't think so. They could even ask the residents to spread the word that the plant needed car batteries to prevent nuclear catastrophe.
They could have asked the Self Defense Force to round up car batteries from the neighborhood for them. The SDF could still have said "no", though, needing a permission from the prime minister.
2. If they went to Iwaki City, they could have just taken the batteries, instead of trying to buy them, if lack of money was the issue. This was the biggest emergency in TEPCO's corporate life. They could have simply told the store managers to bring all the car batteries in stock and just taken them. They could write a note saying how many batteries and how much, and TEPCO would pay for them later, after the reactors were restored.
What would the store managers do? Refuse to give the batteries to TEPCO unless they they were paid on the spot? I don't think so.
3. If the government was making a fuss about the permit to transport batteries, either Toshiba or TEPCO (I don't know who was in charge of transportation) could have told the government to take a hike and just started driving. Or said nothing to the government and just started driving.
What would the government do? Stop the truck by force? When the reactors were on the verge of blowing up? I don't think so.
4. Also, if the Japanese government was a pain in the neck even in the emergency like that, TEPCO could have asked the US government/military for help. Could you bring the batteries to us? The US military could have easily transported battery vehicles in their Chinooks. Would the US government/military say "No we can't do anything, without the request from your government"? When transporting batteries to the plant might save the reactors from meltdowns? I don't think so.
What would the Japanese government do to the US government/military? Get angry that the US helped stop meltdowns? Let them get angry.
50, or 100 batteries may or may not have prevented the meltdowns, but at least they would have given the workers under Plant Manager Masao Yoshida a fighting chance - a better grip on the situation, a little more control over the reactors, and ability to lower pressure so that they could continue to inject water easily and prevent the core from getting exposed.
Fight or flight. 火事場の馬鹿力 (Extraordinary strength at the scene of a fire). TEPCO tried to fight, that much is apparent from the teleconference videos. But they tried to do so within the boundaries of socially acceptable rules and norms in Japan during peacetime when nuclear reactors were operating normally.
When I read the Asahi's article for the first time, the truth is that it didn't occurred to me either that TEPCO could have broken all the rules in an emergency like this. I just thought, "Bureaucrats are bureaucrats no matter what..." over the permit to transport Toshiba batteries on the highway. I mentioned that to an American friend, who immediately said, "Why did they (TEPCO) have to wait for the permit in a make or break situation like this?"
I'm Japanese after all. I was thinking like TEPCO.