Saturday, October 6, 2012

#Fukushima Reactor 3 Explosion, Reactor 2 Core Melt, Possibly Because TEPCO Couldn't Break the Rules to Bring Batteries to the Plant

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.


Anonymous said...

Maybe this is just my typical US way of thinking and things might work differently in Japan, but ... nobody had a credit card?

Anonymous said...

I read construction news about hours after WTC demolition in NY. There were fears a thin wall below street level at the scene would fail allowing the Hudson River in to flood the area (including Wall Street). The building had many levels of basements and many sub levels of train tunnels converge there too.

Emergency workers asked Home Depot exec for extra large timbers to shore up the 'bath tub'. They didn't screw around with permits, payments etc. etc.
The company responded with immediate deliver of all the beams they wanted.

Anonymous said...

I don't think you're being Japanese in thinking that way, you're being "a typical law-abiding citizen". People always argue with me that "rules are rules, you have to abide by them, no matter what".

The way I see it, rules were created by humans with limited scope and knowledge. They're for generally managing the populace, but it's obviously impossible for rules to be designed with every possible situation in mind.

Instead of being mindless tools and bending over without question, people should always adapt to the current situation, breaking any and all rules if necessary. I don't see anything wrong with breaking rules depending on the circumstances. It's reasonable, considerate, intelligent and logical.

Even the people who make the rules often break them, but that's because they're hypocrites and assholes, so that's not the same thing.

Anonymous said...

wow, so that explains why ambulances in japan drive at 15 miles per hour with their sirens blaring in an emergency on a wide open road.... the japanese are fuckwits it seems

Anonymous said...

I'm actually kinda tired of the constant Japan-bashing I see on every single website I visit on the internet. It's always something relatively unimportant or irrelevant that also happens everywhere else in the world.

It makes me wonder if there's some kind of active campaign to make Japan look so silly that nobody will take them seriously after radiation destroys everyone there. "Nuclear meltdown? Typical! Only in Japan! *giggle* *snort*"

Anonymous said...

OK so you can only transport X amount of batteries per vehicle did it ever occur to anyone to find out how many batteries they could transport at one time and multiply that by the number of trucks they needed? I have to wonder how many other problems at the plant came from following the rules off a cliff?

Anonymous said...

You would think five or six bows would get you a free battery.

A cousin lived with a Japanese family and went to the equivalent of high school as an exchange student for a couple years. A experience she could have lived without.

She says in classes, students are not allowed to ask questions, ever. You have to meet the teacher after class, alone, for followup questions. Had to learn the Japanese Tea Ceremony for the family she lived with. Women were oppressed. Was not fun for her.

It totally a culture thing.

Maethelwine said...

Thanks for that extraordinarily helpful "my cousin says" anecdote. Good to have such an inside track on Japanese culture. I had no idea all modern Japanese women were required to master the tea ceremony. That is monstrous.

Anonymous said...

Anon at 11:38AM, when was your cousin in Japan? 60 years ago?

Atomfritz said...

Maybe indeed the mentality question should be more cared of in how to manage nuclear operations (and emergency preparedness).

I don't think the culturally highly advanced Japanese mentality to keep harmony, not to hurt others, which includes abiding to the law, should be abused for Japan-bashing.

But, indeed it becomes a problem when there is an emergency situation and cultural issues prevent the things to be done quickly to be done.

Think of Muslims operating a nuclear plant.
If there occurs a problem, would they start to bow forth and back towards Mecca instead of doing what has to be done?
Remember the Muslim fatalism, which makes many Muslims do not look left and right before crossing the street, because, it is all Allah's will.

Or, think of the FRG, where the nuclear waste disposal salt mine "Asse" is at the brink of collapse.
And the officials discuss about nit-picking theoretical mining law problems that prevent the 139,000 barrels of radwaste in the mine from being recovered, instead of just using the elevator to put the barrels back to the surface before the mine collapses, contaminating the central German aquifer.

Handling with nuclear stuff imho requires the readiness to show some courage, even if breaking the laws.
In Russia a potential nuclear catastrophe has even been averted by forcing "law abiding" officials at gunpoint to do what was necessary to provide spent fuel pool cooling after some problem occurred.

arevamirpal::laprimavera said...

mscharisma, credit card wouldn't have worked, because the power and communication network were damaged in the quake.

I don't think it's the "culture" thing (not in that broad sense). It's training and education. And judging by the sheer lack of response to the Asahi article or this segment of TEPCO's teleconference video in Japan, many in Japan do not even think of what TEPCO could have done - like grabbing the batteries for free.

Anonymous said...

First, before the explosions, most of these folks at the plant were also in denial that anything so bad could happen so quickly. They did not appreciate the depth of the crisis that would occur or the true urgency of the situation.

Second, Japan has a shrinking workforce. There are fewer smart young people available for the very large number of jobs available. The brightest and most creative would probably not go to work at a remote nuclear power plant. And, if they did, this would soon be put off by TEPCO's yen-pinching ways, lack of advancement oppportunities, authoritative management structure, etc. I doubt that Japan's best and brightest were making the decisions when it came to how to procure the batteries. The very brightest, if they were on site, would have been occupied with other aspects of the crisis in those days.

This should not be taken as a criticism of the people who tried unsuccessfully to procure the batteries. I'm sure they did their best. It's just that the top 5% is very small in Japan, and they weren't likely in Fukushima to make the on-the-spot decision to take exceptional measures in this circumstance.

As for the transportation professionals at Toshiba in Tokyo, recall that the government and media were doing a great job of downplaying the nuclear crisis in those early days. There is no way they could have known the true depth of the crisis on 12-MAR. As individuals, they would not have been in crisis mode, and would not have taken extraordinary actions like breaking the law, an action that would have likely ended their careers. The transport of the batteries might not have been seen as a crisis by those involved on the Tokyo side thanks to the DPJ's early media coverups.

Overall this failure I think helps illustrate that MANKIND is incapable of effectively controlling the Nuclear BEAST in all circumstances. We are not perfect. We have no business fooling with a technology like this that requires perfection.

For an excellent essay (in Japanese or English) search "Nuclear power requires perfection" and "Jonathan Schell" If you're on the fence about nuclear power, this will tip you to our view.

arevamirpal::laprimavera said...

I doubt that the top "5%" would have thought any differently. TEPCO's managers whom you see in the video, as well as bureaucrats in the ministries, they are the top 5%.

Anonymous said...

Law abiding Tepco?? Do we have short term memory problems?
If I recall correctly Tepco was reprimanded for falsifying safety inspection records at nuclear powerplants. This is institutional behaviour, not an individual taking the wrong decision when under pressure.
Sharing dosimeters at Fukushima Daiichi was reported to be common practice only a few weeks ago (law requires every worker to wear his own dosimeter); now we are told that Tepco headquarters did not want to send off a truck loaded with batteries because they did not have permission??
Tepco law abiding culture prevented it from dealing with Fukushima disaster? come on... to me Tepco, as a whole, looks like a bunch of greedy idiots, institutionally disrespectful for the substance of the law.
Building npps is madness in itself, if only because of nuclear waste. Building npps in the most earthquake prone country in the world (Japan) is madness on top of madness. Entrusting Japanese npps to organizations like Tepco... well this is collective desire for death.
Luckily this can only happen in Japan, elsewhere they have sandbags so their npps are safe (Fort Calhoun, June 2011)

Anonymous said...

Tepco salaries were some 10,20% above their sector average. I would think this allowed them to hire good people on average.
Unfortunately nuclear energy requires perfection whereas profit maximization requires taking risks.

Anonymous said...

Top 5% commenters:

Recall that it is not only cream that rises to the top. (Those of you who eat a high-fiber diet will understand). Just because a person is at the top of a bureaucracy, ministry, or company does not mean they are of the top 5% in intellect or creativity. In fact, from my experience in US and Japan, they very often are not.

arevamirpal::laprimavera said...

Beppe, all I'm saying is that many Japanese, including TEPCO managers, and myself, would not have thought of other alternative solutions to what they did, in this case how to get car batteries that they needed and that they knew might prevent the disaster from getting worse. And it is not because TEPCO managers are "crooks".

If the same accident happened in China, the response would have been vastly different. If it happened in the US, or in Italy, or in France, I doubt that the response would have been the same as in Japan. May not be better, but most likely it would have been different.

Back in May or June when the Friday protest in front of PM Office was stronger, I tweeted your and another anon's suggestions on how to effectively protest, which included using cars and circle around if police harassed people on the sidewalk, in Japanese to my Japanese followers. Their near-unanimous reaction was "Oh... that's right! It never occurred to me..."

Sharing the dosimeters at the plant had been reported last year. That being a common practice had been reported at least a decade ago in Japan (hardly anyone paid attention).

Anonymous said...

Having lived more than 15 years in Japan, I suspected it would come down to something like this. The Japanese are literally capable of self annihilation. There needs to be a wealthy, independent, determined, non-government force (education > awareness > enlightenment) to instill the survival instinct required to counter-balance the default mentality.

arevamirpal::laprimavera said...

Anon at 6:41PM, agree. I do believe it can be learned. (Or I hope so.)

Anonymous said...

@Anon 11:38AM
Oh yeah? I don't live in Japan, and it was pretty much the same when I was at school. Teachers ignoring hands up, not answering questions, we had to see them alone after class, etc. If I recall correctly, we all learned the tea ceremony here as part of our culture studies. OH NOES! OPPRESSION! THOSE DAMN JAPANESE FORCING THEIR TEA CEREMONY ON US!! PEARL HARBOUR!! WAHHH!

I strongly suspect that your cousin has a habit of perceiving everything in such a way that she immediately sees "sexism" and "oppression of women" in everything. I have met many people who perceive things this way. You can find demons everywhere, if you're looking for them.

To be honest, I am partially guilty of doing so myself. But at least I'm aware of it, and try not to.

Just because your cousin complained about those things doesn't mean that they're specifically "sexist" or "oppressive of women". Her experience is subjective. In most cases, many of these things happen to everyone, all genders, all races, everywhere.

I've also thought about how it's nice that the Japanese seem to be more considerate of each other's private lives with regard to staying in harmony, but that mentality still has problems.

You used Muslim religion as an example for culture. I'm not sure that they're the same thing. Religious people tend to sit on their hands, expecting a higher power to save the day. I'm not sure if Arabic culture implies that. They're nowhere near as backwards or stupid as the media portrays them to be.

I also feel that education turns people into mindless robots. It's like a system that pumps out assholes. No critical thinking, just bend over and follow theory. The people in the top positions burn so much of their lives studying to get where they are now, that they have nothing left to care about the rest of the world.

It's the critical thinking aspect that's the most important. If I want to reach a specific goal, I think of as many ways as I can to achieve it. I take pleasure in devising elaborate methods to achieve my goal, but I avoid doing anything that will cause trouble for myself or others. I hope that's not the same mentality as the Japanese.

I think the reason why so many of these kinds of articles get such few responses or views is because people are sick of having suffered so long and just want to forget and move on. The burden of a disaster on this level needs to be accepted and shared by the entire populace.

@Anon 3:16PM
I honestly feel that in most places in the world, being bright and creative will get you punished. They don't want smart workers, they just want workers. Do your job, get paid, done.

Anyone who tries to improve anything always runs into roadblocks setup by the people in charge, whose top priority is to keep the money flowing into their pockets by protecting the current system. It doesn't matter how many smart people you have if all the decisions still need to go through the assholes.

I think it's common for big business to be anal over minor laws, while they break all the serious ones. It's as if they're trying to maintain the illusion of being law-abiding.

@Anon 6:41PM
If you've lived that long in Japan, you may not have had as much experience living in other countries. The mentality may not be exactly the same, but the same problems exist everywhere else in the world.

I think the real problem is money. Money is so important, we use it for every single thing. But it does not accurately consider, define or encompass many truly important factors, such as effort, value of life, innovation/creation and urgent emergency situations.

It shouldn't be the top priority. Generalizing and lumping everything under money simply doesn't work. Think of how much better our society might be if the important things in life didn't rely so heavily on budget and economics? There must be a better way of doing things.

Anonymous said...

Oh, one more thing about the "women in Japan are oppressed based on what one cousin says":

It might also have been the specific family and area she went to. It doesn't mean ALL of Japan is like that. There are sexist, racist, or whatever-ist hotspots everywhere.

I myself have had a hell of a time dealing with sexism and racism. People openly yelling "go back to your own country", making nasty remarks and making life hell for anyone who isn't "white".

I don't know if I can confidently say that the entire country has these problems, but I can say that I've met or seen several people who say that the country and city I live in are "the most racist in the world".

Anonymous said...

"It's just that the top 5% is very small in Japan, and they weren't likely in Fukushima to make the on-the-spot decision to take exceptional measures in this circumstance. "

Well, let's just agree that the 'top 5% in the United States are not working for the Nuclear Power industry because I have yet to read a post by a nuke plant worker capable of understanding the scientific reasons why bananas are not a greater 'risk' than nuclear power plant contamination....

I continue to be amazed at the condescending manner in which nuke plant "professionals" attempt to deploy the pathetic, stupid "banana maneuver" in their failed attempts to shame citizens out of objecting to the reckless dispersion of radioactive waste.

Anonymous said...

At 9:28 Anon said (partial quote)"
It makes me wonder if there's some kind of active campaign to make Japan look so silly that nobody will take them seriously after radiation destroys everyone there. "Nuclear meltdown? Typical! Only in Japan! *giggle* *snort*"

While I think there is a legitimate basis behind questioning potential effects of culture on decision making, particularly in this instance, it doesn't mean nuke workers in other countries won't try to take advantage of it and try to imply "But, obviously THAT could never happen HERE..." in order to deflect public objections........

Anonymous said...

In the days immediately following the disaster, I recall reading an article written by one of the men who originally designed the reactor model while working in San Jose many years earlier. He questioned why Japan refused two offers by foreign nations to fly in back up power generators for this purpose saying that Japan refused offers to avoid the extent of the catastrophe.

Anonymous said...

Looks more like a corporate thing,the CEO and boards of directors are interested in only two things,managing press releases in favour of the shares which they own and getting out before the fruits of their stewardship become blatant.

As is often the case these boards decide to increase the workload at sites they are running down,they will do this for years before making their plan known to 'plebs' in a press release.

They hope culpability will be lost in the confused situation of their creating and they employ a team of people to provide numerative documents to prove this is so.

Anonymous said...

Not to worry. After arranging 4 expert panels, floating 3 trial balloons in the press, and negotiating for a couple of months with the LDP, we can all be assured that the current administration will come up with a new set of procedures and laws in the case of a nuclear meltdown caused by a massive earthquake and a tsunami.

Well, you ask, what about a meltdown caused only by an earthquake? To which a low level bureaucrat replies, "Are you making a request for that? Because the request form for rules covering situations about which we have had no direct experience is the blue one."

Anonymous said...

I suppose choosing between evacuating the plant site or procuring some batteries covers the wide array of indecision(s) at that point in time.

Even the TMI event had no central body to call to help coordinate and assemble a team of experts in that emergency. While one work shift sits and watches the meltdown in front of them, the next shift change comes in and recognizes the problem.

Is Japan a puppet regime of the US? Can't even defend itself due to the paperwork signed during the surrender. Does Japan do what they want as long as they do as they are told? Not to open up old wounds but who really is running the show?

I can't believe GE was sitting around during the meltdowns saying, "To bad." But the situation was obviously hopeless without cooling water delivery.

With Fukushima, how you hide meltdowns and the ensuing fallout is a case study in governmental coverups. Russia's initial Chernobyl response was the same, don't tell anybody anything.

Yes, it was decades ago with my cousin's experience in her culture exchange. If women reporters on Japanese TV is progressive then so be it, like women, at one time, in the US weren't allowed to vote.

No matter what, things appear to be getting worse.

arevamirpal::laprimavera said...

Anon above, regarding the transport of cooling water, that's another fantastic story. Not those hyper-rescue firefighters from Tokyo metropolitan government sent to the plant after March 16 but before. TEPCO had to rely on its subcontractors to bring fire engines to the plant to pump water from the largest source of water (Pacific Ocean), and that took a very long time.

I wish I had learned the formal tea ceremony. I envy your cousin.

Anonymous said...

The whole education set up is to design a bunch of unquestioning jobsworths. They dont teach responsibility. But they do teach rubber stamping and following orders.
Didnt a bunch of junior high school students follow behind elementary schoolstudents as they were evacuating to higher ground? Just as well, because both schools were taken out by the tsunami, if I remember correctly. (Sho Gakkusei have a lot more freedom than JHS students-where the BS starts in earnest. (Test learning is not education).

Anonymous said...

I am not sure there is much to gain from blame. It is fascinating to learn more and more about the timeline of the disaster but like in battle, or all real life emergencies, hindsight is 20/20 and much of this seems like Monday morning quarterbacking to me. I doubt if this would have been handled much better in the US.

Dr. Bob said...

For years I have lived in Japan under the following rule: If you don't ask, they can't say "no."

Without a sense of agency, how the hell do you even know you are alive?

zwitterelf said...

People have to realize consciousness comes first before stupid policy and rules

Anonymous said...

About 'Japaneseness' talk on this thread...

In the free-wheelin' USA people sign up to run a 5k for cancer cause while driving daily past a nuke plant. They blast their lawns with carcinogens and eat them too.
Wear a pink hat for cancer!
Mindlessness is not unique to Japan.

Anonymous said...

US may be depraved, but in a very different way. It's not "mindlessness" that's the issue. It's the way (how) they are mindless in Japan. "How" is very different from one country to another, despite the politically correct talk of "we're all the same" (or whatever).

Anonymous said...

They didn't need a bank of batteries. Go to the nearest cell phone tower or any other business in the area and grab the backup generator - yes, steal them if necessary. 2 or three of them might have kept the plant from melting down.

However one thing comes to mind: From what I gather, it's highly likely the reactors started melting even before the tsunami hit. If that's the case, this was merely an exercise in "going through the motions" .

If that were the case, only the nuclear engineers and very senior management would have known. Otherwise the workforce would have abandoned the facility. This is probably one of the other reasons they have not and cannot admit the true condition of things: who would go to work there? What emergency workers would respond?

Firefighters and rescue workers are taught rule number 1 is that you stand by if it threatens your life - even let people suffer and die, because you cannot save anyone if you are dead yourself.

If you know it is highly likely you will die if you work in a place, you are simply not going to work in that place. They've had to lie to the workforce from the time of the earthquake, otherwise nothing would have gotten done.


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