Fukushima by Mark Willacy – Extract

Fukushima

1

SAN TEN ICHI ICHI

The land of Mutsuno-kuni trembled and greatly shook. People cried and screamed, unable to get up from the ground. And the violent waves and high tides arrived. The scene of the flood . . . was so vast you could not tell where the sea ended and the land started.

The True History of Three Reigns of Japan (Nihon Sandai Jitsuroku)

Friday 11 March 2011

Ittekimasu!’ yelled Koharu to her mother. ‘I am going.’

Naomi Hiratsuka only caught a glimpse of Koharu. There was just a flash of her green checked jacket in the hallway, a shouted goodbye, and she was gone. Naomi was busy in her bedroom with the two little ones.

Itterashai!’ shouted Naomi after her. ‘Have a good day and a safe return.’ But her eldest daughter was already out the door.

It was 7 am and Koharu had eaten breakfast, packed her bag and was on her way to school. There was no time to talk to her mother. The 12-year-old was bursting to tell her friends about her award. A teacher from Koharu’s school had phoned overnight with wonderful news. She had won a prefectural prize for her essay about Kazuko Tomiyama’s book The Sea is Alive. Koharu’s essay would now be published in a book of compositions.

Naomi was so proud of her daughter. Koharu had always been a bookworm. She loved anything by the popular mystery writer Keigo Higashino, and recently she had read a whole Harry Potter novel in a single night. Whenever her mother asked her what she wanted for a present, Koharu always told her ‘a book’. So what if she was no good at sports and struggled at arithmetic, thought Naomi. When Koharu grew up, she wanted to be a primary-school teacher, just like her mother.

Since the birth of her third child, Naomi had taken extended leave. It was not just the kids she had to take care of but also her husband’s parents, who lived with them. In addition, there was his 101-year-old bedridden grandmother in the semi-detached. Naomi spent a lot of her time cooking and cleaning. It was the 37-year-old’s duty to her family, and she shouldered it without complaint.

The Hiratsukas lived in the village of Yokokawa, just north of Ishinomaki City. On the Pacific coast, 340 kilometres north­east of Tokyo, Ishinomaki was founded in the fourth century. Home to 165,000 people, it was famous for its large milky oysters, its wakame seaweed and for deep-sea fishing. It was also a whaling town. Commercial Japanese whaling was born at the port of Ayukawa on the peninsula just east of the city, with the arrival of a catcher boat and a factory ship captured during the 1905 Russo–Japanese War.

But the Hiratsukas were neither farmers nor fishermen. Naomi and her husband, Shinichiro, were schoolteachers, living in a crowded household of four generations. And Yokokawa is not on the coast; it is about ten kilometres inland, on a straight stretch of the Kitakami River.

There was another reason why young Koharu Hiratsuka was excited this morning. Next week, she would graduate from the Okawa Primary School, and there would be a big send-off party. The school was up the road, along the Kitakami River, four kilometres from the coast. The stretch of river next to the school was 200 metres wide, and a steel-girder bridge spanned it. Adjoining the school playground is a steep wooded hill that the locals call Darumatsu. The arc-shaped school was sur­rounded by 240 homes, all densely packed together in a rabbit warren of narrow streets. Okawa was not a big school – just 108 students and 13 teachers and staff. But everyone knew each other, and Koharu and her classmates would be moving to the same junior high after the holiday. This was their last full week together as primary-school students, and this weekend Naomi and her daughter were going to talk about what type and colour hakama (traditional culotte-style trousers) Koharu would wear to her graduation party.

Naomi finished dressing and stared at the mirror. My eldest child will soon be in high school, she thought. Koharu is already so big, almost as tall as me. And so busy too. Not even time to stop and say goodbye.

*

Norio Kimura lifted the last of the pigs down from the truck. He pressed the palms of his hands into the small of his back and flexed backward. The pigs were just a couple of months old, but they weighed about 30 kilograms each. I’m getting too old for this, thought Kimura. Time to scrub out the bed of the truck. As soon as he did that, he might head home. Yuna and Mayu would be home from school soon. Kimura smiled to himself. His daughters were looking forward to the weekend, because they were competing in the end-of-season competition for their tennis team.

Norio Kimura and his family lived in the town of Okuma, on the Fukushima coast. As well as his wife and two daughters, Kimura shared his home with his parents. Their wooden two-storey house was just 100 metres from the beach. Every night, Kimura drifted off to sleep listening to the waves pounding the sand. The sound comforted him, even rejuvenated him. His home was also a stone’s throw from the Kuma River, which flowed through this town of 11,000 people. The Okuma district was renowned for its sticky rice, kiwi fruit and Nashi pears. But it was also known for the nuclear plant.

In 1961, the town voted unanimously to invite the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) to build a nuclear power station on its coastline. Ten years later, the first reactor at Fukushima Dai-ichi (‘Dai-ichi’ means ‘number one’) began generating power, sending electricity into the world’s biggest market: the neon megacity of Tokyo, 250 kilometres to the south-west. Once part of a coal-mining district, Okuma was transformed from a cash-strapped speck into a thriving nuclear town, and over the years it would earn tens of millions of dollars in subsidies, grants and taxes for hosting Fukushima Dai-ichi.

‘TEPCO put lots of money into Okuma. They helped build the town hall, gyms, sports complexes, things like that,’ said Kimura. ‘The local tax rates are lower too, because we host the nuclear plant.’

Many of Kimura’s boyhood friends had gone on to work at Fukushima Dai-ichi. But the nuclear plant was not for him. He was a farmer. Together with his fellow workers, he had 15,000 pigs to take care of. When they reached six months old, they would be sold to processors across Japan. His wife, Miyuki, worked too, as a cook in a school cafeteria in Okuma. She was a lot more outgoing than Kimura, and, despite not being born or raised here, she was more accepted in the community. They had met through their aunts, who conspired to bring the two together.

‘It wasn’t an arranged marriage,’ Kimura was quick to assure me. ‘When we met, it took me a while to get talking to her. She lived in Osaka, and eventually I got to phoning her – over and over again.’ He laughed. The 47-year-old has a boyish face, accentuated by a mop-top haircut. He is small, but strong from years of heaving pigs about.

Norio and Miyuki’s girls, Mayu and Yuna, were ten and seven respectively. Little Yuna was the family clown, who would often perform her ad-lib comedy routines to the amusement of the household. She was certainly not shy and would offer help to people she didn’t know. Kimura was proud of Yuna. Recently, he had received a letter from a parent at the school, praising her for helping the woman’s daughter. Yuna had taken great care with her daughter, the letter revealed, by pushing the little girl’s wheelchair around the school. None of the other students had offered to help.

Yuna could blend in anywhere; not so Mayu. ‘Mayu isn’t good with people,’ said Kimura of his older daughter. ‘She has too much pride. She doesn’t mingle with people. She won’t try to make friends. Mayu never shows her feelings.’

Mayu hated going to school. As soon as the bell went, she was out the gate and into her grandfather’s car and off home. Yuna, though, went to the children’s hall after school to play with her friends. Her mother picked her up after she finished work.

But these sisters did have one thing in common: they loved Kara, an all-girl Korean pop group. Their music drove Kimura mad.

Kimura hauled himself up into the bed of the truck, clutch­ing the hose. Ah, pig shit, he thought. At least I’m not stuck working at the nuclear plant.

*

Takashi Sato tapped at the keyboard, one index finger at a time. He had been working on this Reactor 5 inspection report for weeks, and he was drowning in paper. The 33-year-old reac­tor at TEPCO’s Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Plant was offline, although it still contained 548 fuel assemblies. It was a routine shutdown, required by law every 13 months so the reactor could be checked.

The day before, Sato had helped supervise a test of the reac­tor pressure vessel, to ensure it wasn’t leaking. ‘If there is a leak, the pressure will not go up,’ Sato explained. ‘That is checked along with the temperature. This test will help put the reactor back in operation mode.’

He had already finished supervising maintenance work on the drive that inserted the control rods into the central core of the reactor. The control rods were essential for keeping the nuclear reaction in check and could be used during an emergency to shut down the reactor. Now, Sato had to write everything up in a report for TEPCO.

It was Takashi Sato’s job – and that of other TEPCO inspectors – to ensure all six reactors at the facility were run­ning safely. His task was getting tougher, because some of the Fukushima Dai-ichi reactors were the oldest in Japan. Reactor 1 had started commercial electricity generation exactly 40 years earlier, in March 1971. The youngest reactor – Reactor 6 – had gone online in 1979.

The 3.5-square-kilometre Fukushima Dai-ichi site is posi­tioned next to the Pacific coast to ensure easy access to large quantities of vital cooling water in an emergency. The plant had been built on a bluff that was originally 35 metres above sea level. But during construction the bulldozers set to work, lowering the bluff by 25 metres.

With nearly 40,000 employees, 30 million customers, and annual revenues of $62 billion, TEPCO was one of the world’s biggest private power companies. Just like Japan’s nine other power utilities, TEPCO operated a virtual monopoly over power generation, distribution and sales in its very own fiefdom – in its case, Tokyo. The company had the world’s third-largest nuclear generation capacity, with 17 reactors at three plants across Japan. TEPCO was a state within a state, often accused of exerting powerful influence over Japanese policymaking.

In March 2011, Reactor 1 had reached the statutory limit of its design life – 40 years of service. To continue running, it needed an extension from the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), the government regulator. In February 2011, NISA had approved another ten years of operation. That was despite findings by a committee set up to review the approval that ‘maintenance management was inadequate’ and that the ‘quality of inspection was insufficient’.1 TEPCO would later admit that, during the inspection process, it had not examined more than 30 pieces of equipment, including diesel generators and water pumps vital to the plant’s cooling system.

Takashi Sato had worked at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant for 15 years. A slight man with high cheekbones and a wispy mous­tache, Sato was proud of his work, and he was a true believer in nuclear power. ‘The nuclear plant provides employment for the district,’ he said. ‘TEPCO offers lots of opportunities. Even people from outside Fukushima come here to work, meaning money for local hotels, shops and restaurants. We’ve prospered because of the nuclear plant.’

Sato lived right next door to the plant, in the town of Okuma. ‘We grew up being told nuclear power is safe and secure,’ he said. ‘It was good for me to have been involved with the plant.’ For Sato, living in this nuclear village offered the best of both worlds. During the week, he had a well-paying job only a couple of kilometres from his home. On the weekends, he had the beach just over the road, or the mountains a short drive inland. Sato, his wife, Tomoe, and their seven-year-old daughter, Nao, were happy here. ‘Okuma is a very comfortable place to live,’ he said. ‘We have a beautiful view of the ocean, as well as the mountains. It is cool in summer and doesn’t snow too much in winter.’

But with the clock ticking down to the weekend, he wanted to get as much done on this Reactor 5 inspection report as he could. He stabbed away at his keyboard.

Sato had been shunted into a small second-floor room in the main TEPCO office block, about a kilometre inland from the string of six reactors. His report outlined what was inspected, when, and who was present from TEPCO and NISA. He was ticking boxes, keeping the bureaucrats happy.

Sato looked at his watch.

2.35 pm. A couple of hours and I’m out of here, he thought.

*

‘Questions Over the Prime Minister Receiving Illegal Donation’.

Tetsuro Fukuyama had known it was coming, and he knew it would be bad. But a front-page splash? This was getting worse by the day.

The deputy chief Cabinet secretary shook his head and threw the Asahi Shimbun on the desk. First, the foreign min­ister Seiji Maehara had been forced to resign; now they were going after the prime minister. Fukuyama knew they were in deep trouble, because the law was clear – politicians are not allowed to accept donations from foreigners. The newspaper was alleging the prime minister, Naoto Kan, had received $12,000 from a South Korean resident of Japan. Maehara had fallen on his sword for way less than that – a $600 contribution. At least the Asahi Shimbun was running Kan’s defence – he simply hadn’t known the donor was a foreigner. He was promising to return the entire amount. He had no plans to resign. Fukuyama also knew that his boss was a brawler, a tenacious politician who had fought his way off the canvas more than once.

But the smart money was on Naoto Kan becoming the fifth Japanese prime minister in a row to last a year or less in office. As the old proverb goes, Japanese prime ministers are like tissues. Disposable. You plucked one out, and, once you were finished with him (they were always men), you chucked him away. There was always another in the box waiting to be pulled out.

In a few hours, Naoto Kan would be in the Diet (the Japanese parliament), the blowtorch back on his belly. Tetsuro Fukuyama had been in the prime minister’s office since 6.30 am, trying to thrash out a strategy to defuse this scandal before it got any worse.

Just 49 years of age, Fukuyama was one of the rising stars of the governing Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Elected to the Upper House of the Diet in 1998, he had been chosen by Naoto Kan to be one of three deputy chief Cabinet secretaries. That put him under the chief Cabinet secretary, Yukio Edano. That posi­tion was seen as a stepping stone into the top job itself.

With his boyish good looks, and a wave of thick hair parted luxuriantly to the right, the relatively young Fukuyama was regarded by some in the opposition as an arrogant novice. They had to be careful not to underestimate him. But on this day, 11 March, the opposition could smell blood – Naoto Kan’s blood, because he was leaking support with every opinion poll. And this donation scandal was certain to further loosen his grip on power. The latest poll gave Kan and his Cabinet an approval rating of just 20 per cent. If they slipped one more point, they would equal the record for the lowest support level of any Japanese administration.

The prime minister’s wife, Nobuko, did not share the deputy chief Cabinet secretary’s confidence that her husband could surpass the average political lifespan of a Japanese leader. When Kan had moved into the PM’s office in June, nine months earlier, she’d joked that she had packed only their summer clothes. Mrs Kan did not think they would be staying that long.

But in a revolving-door system that had produced identical tissue-paper politicians, Naoto Kan stood out. He was an out­sider, cut from a coarser cloth. Unlike many of his predecessors, he was not the scion of a blueblood political dynasty – an Aso, an Abe, a Koizumi or a Hatoyama. His five immediate prede­cessors were all the direct descendants of a Cabinet minister or a prime minister. Kan is the son of a salaryman from the prefec­ture of Yamaguchi in far western Japan. And, unlike many of his political colleagues, he is no graduate of the ultra-elite schools such as Tokyo University. He had gone to the Tokyo Institute of Technology, earning a physics degree and later working as a patent agent and attorney.

Kan was a quick-tempered maverick and a bit of a tinkerer. In the early seventies, he had developed and built an automatic calculator for the complicated point system in the traditional Chinese game of mah-jong. Then, after several years of social activism, he was elected to the Diet in 1980. But it was not until 1996 that he won national acclaim and respect. As health minister, he had forced reluctant bureaucrats to come clean and reveal the ministry’s use of HIV-tainted blood products. The terrible secret had long been hushed up by ministry bureaucrats and pharmaceutical-company officials – it was a cover-up that had left 1800 haemophiliacs infected with the virus. It was a stunning victory for Naoto Kan over Japan’s omnipotent bureaucracy, but one that deepened his distrust of the manda­rins and the big private conglomerates that he still regards as representing the most insidious form of collusion.

‘Each individual in the Japanese bureaucracy is a good, excellent person,’ said Naoto Kan. ‘But when they become part of an organisation they don’t admit their errors, they cover them up. This was the case with this HIV scandal. Although they knew the adverse effects of these [blood products], they said they didn’t. They didn’t admit responsibility for the dam­age. I thought it was inexcusable that the state would not admit its guilt when so many people were suffering.’

From political triumph, Naoto Kan was plunged into per­sonal scandal when it was alleged he was involved in an affair with a television presenter. Both parties denied the claims. But his image as a principled reformer who was above the murky liaisons of politics had taken a hit. Then, in 2004, he had resigned as the head of his party for failing to pay compulsory pension contributions. Unconventional to the end, Naoto Kan had donned a conical straw hat and the white robes of the penitent and set off on a pilgrimage of 88 Buddhist temples on Shikoku Island in western Japan to ‘search his soul’ and pray for political resurrection.

On the morning of 11 March 2011, Naoto Kan was nine months into the job as prime minister of Japan, although he was again doing some political soul-searching. He was facing the biggest threat to his premiership. For Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Tetsuro Fukuyama and the rest of the inner circle, the pressure was immense. The prime minister’s quick temper was not helping. It was not for nothing that he was known as ‘Ira-Kan’, short for ‘Irritable Kan’.

‘Some people say he’s not suitable to be prime minister, because he is like a small shopkeeper, always getting involved in everything,’ said Toshiso Kosako, one of Japan’s leading experts on radiation safety, who would later be called in to advise Naoto Kan. ‘Frequently he got angry. It caused trouble inside the Cabinet.’

In the coming days, many people would be scorched by the prime minister’s blowtorch temper, as Naoto Kan struggled for answers about how to deal with the biggest crisis in Japan since the Second World War.

*

The snow was beginning to stick to Yoshiharu Yoshida’s wind­screen. The fisherman leant forward in his little white truck, straining to see the road winding its way through the mountains on Hirota Peninsula. To the left, through the pines, he could see the Pacific – a grey sea set against a white sky. Yoshida would be home in a couple of minutes and finally out of the bone-chilling cold. It was 2.39 in the afternoon. He had been up since before dawn, as usual chugging out into Hirota Bay by 4 am to tend to his oyster beds.

Yoshida was born a fisherman. His grandfather had been a fisherman, so too had his grandfather’s grandfather. But the Yoshida family hadn’t always been tied to the ebb and flow of the Pacific. It was said that Yoshiharu Yoshida’s ancestors had been nobles and samurai during the Ashikaga shogunate of the sixteenth century. However, sometime after the fifteenth and final shogun was exiled they had lain down their swords for the sea, becoming one of the first families to settle the craggy bays of the Hirota Peninsula. In the wilderness of the north-east, they became lords of the Pacific, well acquainted with the tsunamis that would flood Hirota Bay after each violent earthquake.

For 20 years, Yoshiharu Yoshida has been growing oysters. Before that, he had cruised the world seeking the most lucrative prize in the sea: bluefin tuna. But, when his father had grown old, Yoshida returned to Hirota Bay to take over the family’s oyster farm. The Sanriku coast of north-eastern Japan was celebrated and sought out for its oysters – creamy, palm-sized molluscs cultivated in floating rafts spread out across the calm flat of the bay. This giant species had been exported all over the world – to North America, Australia and Europe. Yoshida’s oysters had even graced the plates of some of France’s finest restaurants.

The fisherman was pleased. He had harvested part of a crop he’d been nurturing for nearly 18 months. The best specimens would end up in Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market, nearly 600 kilometres to the south-west. It was a labyrinthine hive of forklifts, jab­bering auctioneers and 700 species of marine life. The biggest wholesale market in the world, Tsukiji turned over more than five billion dollars a year. Yoshida had just sold his smaller oys­ters to a wholesaler in Ofunato, 20 minutes’ drive to the north. In a good year, he could get $185,000 for them – and this was shaping up as a bumper harvest.

Yoshida pulled down into his steep driveway. His home sat in a rocky cove, which was encased in concrete, like most along this coast. Many of these bays also had towering concrete walls to protect homes and lives from the tsunamis that had battered the Sanriku coast for as long as time itself – an arrogance that nature would soon expose with stunning contempt. Turning off his engine, Yoshida tipped back his cap, revealing a tanned face worn into smooth leather by sun, salt spray and sea squalls. There were cracks in his stout fingers from years of hauling lines, tying ropes and being soaked in the Pacific brine. But he was content. Whether tending his oyster rafts in Hirota Bay or fishing overnight on the open ocean, Yoshida relished the solitude and the vagaries of the deep. But he knew the seafar­ing life in his district was withering towards extinction, slowly dying with each elderly fisherman of his generation. He was one of the youngest left, and he was approaching 60. He shook his head. These young people were soft – they spurned their birth­right. They’d prefer the faraway drudgery of a Tokyo office and the suffocation of a boxy apartment to the open water and the roll of a boat.

Yoshiharu Yoshida’s secluded cove was just across the bay from the town of Rikuzentakata. His house was set back up the hill a couple of hundred metres from the water. ‘Emiko, I am home. Is the coffee on?’ he asked as he slipped off his rubber boots and bib pants in the genkan, or entrance porch. But his wife was not home; she was down in the shed next to the cove scrubbing out fishing pots. Sliding his feet into his slippers, Yoshida stepped up into the vast living room. Light streamed in through the sliding shoji doors of wood and thin paper. Yoshida’s life had the easy rhythm of boat, sea and home.

I had met Yoshiharu Yoshida the year before at a lavish Japanese feast at a celebrated seafood restaurant in central Rikuzentakata. The proprietor, Tomie Oikawa, had fussed over us, keen to show off her hospitality to this gaijin (foreign) guest. The dishes had kept coming: sashimi of tuna, mack­erel, salmon and squid lying on ribbons of daikon; shells of scallops; porcelain bowls brimming with fat sticky rice; and deep red slabs of minke whale. Mrs Oikawa would bustle in, clinking bottles of Rikuzentakata’s renowned Suisen sake. Dozens of Yoshida’s succulent off-white oysters, each wob­bling on its plate-sized shell, had rounded out the banquet. I had come to Rikuzentakata to do a story about this old whaling town and one of its favourite sons, who had risen up Japan’s bureaucratic ladder to lead the country’s delegation to the International Whaling Commission. Hiroyuki Komatsu had drawn international scorn once for describing minke whales as ‘cockroaches of the sea’, an abundant resource that Japan should be free to plunder from the North Pacific to the Antarctic. Now, here I was at a restaurant being goaded into trying some of this cetacean cockroach by Komatsu and some of his oldest friends – those who’d resisted the neon lights and packed subways of Tokyo for the simplicity and serenity of Rikuzentakata. Sitting opposite me on the tatami-mat floor had been Yoshiharu Yoshida.

‘You must eat more of my oysters. They are the best in the world. Not only do they taste good, but they will make you a man,’ Yoshida had said with a wink. He had then tilted his head back and drained his sake.

Lying next to him was one of his fellow fishermen, an old seadog whose piratical constitution had deserted him. He was so drunk he’d passed out in a crucifixion position, his mouth agape. Another of our party had simply slid into unconscious­ness, head in hands, elbows on the table. Drunkenness among friends wasn’t just accepted but encouraged.

I had let the sake trickle over my tongue and down my throat. Why not let my hair down? I would never see these people again, nor return to Rikuzentakata. But I would be wrong. I would be back. But I would be right too. Some at this table I would never see again.

*

No matter how fast he worked, the pile of paper in front of him kept getting bigger.

Yuichi Owada leant back in his chair and stretched. Time for a cigarette. March was the busiest month of the year – tax time. The accountant lit the cigarette and drew back. In a few hours, he could leave these tax returns behind, enjoy a sake and look forward to a weekend of fishing on Hirota Bay.

Owada’s family had lived in the Yonezaki district of Rikuzentakata for generations. Almost everywhere you turned in Yonezaki, you bumped into an Owada. An Owada ran the convenience store, half the fishermen were Owadas, and the vil­lage’s biggest employer, the sawmill, was owned and operated by an Owada. The family had settled next to Hirota Bay more than three hundred years ago, and here they’d stayed.

‘I can go fishing almost every day,’ Yuichi Owada told me. ‘Why would I want to live in the city? Why would I want to get up early, go to work in a train packed in like a sardine? Why would I want to get home late? To have no time to play with the kids? Here I can be home by five o’clock, play sport with my kids, have dinner with them, read books to them at bed time. Time moves slowly here, but that suits me.’

Owada looked at the dozens of tax returns in the pile on his desk. Yes, time did move too slowly sometimes. He stubbed out his cigarette. In a bit over two hours, I’m out of here, he thought.

Owada heard a creak, like a heavy door opening on rusty hinges. Then his swivel chair shook. A quake. There had been one two days earlier, the biggest in a few years. That one had rattled north-eastern Japan for 30 seconds and measured magni­tude 7.2. A 30-centimetre tsunami had burbled into Hirota Bay half an hour later, rocking the fishing boats and swamping part of the port. Nothing serious.

Owada sat back in his chair and waited for the tremor to shake itself out. But it got worse. Files started falling off shelves around him. The lateral movement built and then built some more, until it seemed as though he was in a giant washing machine. Everything was slapping, slamming and shaking in a perfect rhythm. The office secretaries dived under their desks. A steel locker next to Owada’s desk teetered. The accountant rolled his chair up to it and stopped it from toppling. This is big, he thought. A tsunami will come.

The 11 March earthquake was what seismologists and geophysicists call a classic tsunamigenic rupture. For tens of millions of years, the Pacific Plate and the continental plate under Japan’s main island of Honshu have been grinding against each other in a ferocious contest of power. Moving west at about nine centimetres a year, the Pacific Plate buckles and dips under the continental plate, accumulating massive amounts of energy.

‘Eventually that stress is overcome, and is released in a very big earthquake,’ explained Dr Gavin Hayes, a geophysicist with the United States Geological Survey in Denver, Colorado. ‘The plate is thrust upwards and that moves the sea floor upwards, in this case a thrust of 50 metres. Some estimate it could have moved 80 to 90 metres upwards.’

A later study would reveal that the two plates slipped more than in any other earthquake in recorded history. During the largest earthquake on record, the magnitude-9.5 Chile tremor of 1960, the fault zone moved 20 metres.

The megathrust earthquake was felt as far away as China and eastern Russia. It had 500 times more force than the magnitude-7 earthquake that killed 316,000 people in Haiti in 2010. It would be ranked the fourth most violent earthquake in recorded history. This sudden vertical snap of one of the earth’s plates had thrust a seven-kilometre-high wall of seawater upwards, giving birth to a mega-tsunami.2

‘We haven’t seen anything like it off Japan in more than a thousand years,’ said Dr Hayes. ‘We equate it most closely with the Jogan Earthquake of 869.’ Named for the period in Japanese history, the Jogan Earthquake had sent a tsunami crashing into the Sanriku coast. Its impact was described in Nihon Sandai Jitsuroku (The True History of Three Reigns of Japan), an official history of Japan ordered by the Emperor Uda in 879 ce and completed 22 years later. It recorded how more than a thousand people perished:

In some instances, the houses fell on them and they died under the weight, and in other instances, the earth sheared open and some died buried alive under the earth and sand . . . The mouth of the sea howled, sounding like thunder. And the violent waves and high tides arrived, going upstream into rivers, continuing until, in the blink of an eye, they reached the wall of the Taga Castle. The scene of the flood that had extended several dozen li [about 500 metres] was so vast you could not tell where the sea ended and the land started . . . Nothing – prop­erty and fields – remained; everything was destroyed.3

‘The record described a strong quake and violent tsunami,’ recounted Dr Yukinobu Okamura, the director of Japan’s Active Fault and Earthquake Research Centre. ‘Although it doesn’t mention the word “tsunami”, it says seawater rushed in and almost everything was washed away along a broad area. It also mentions that more than a thousand people were killed.’

Dr Okamura’s researchers had already discovered four years earlier through sediment analysis that the Jogan tsunami had reached three to four kilometres inland at modern-day Sendai and nearly two kilometres inland at northern Fukushima. That finding would come back to haunt him, the Japanese Government and TEPCO, the operator of the Fukushima Dai­ichi Nuclear Plant.

After five minutes, the shaking began to subside. Things in Yuichi Owada’s office stopped falling. He could let go of the steel locker. The secretaries emerged from under their desks. ‘I’ve got to get down to the port,’ said Owada. Like tens of thousands of men and women in towns and villages across Japan, the accountant was a volunteer firefighter. The captain of Yonezaki’s Division One squad of 22 men, Owada was tasked with evacuating residents and shutting the eight steel gates in the seawall at Wakinosawa Port in the event of a tsunami warning. He had done it two days earlier after the magnitude-7.2 quake.

‘I thought this would also send a small tsunami to the port. I never imagined anything larger,’ Owada said later.

Speeding through the streets of Yonezaki, he switched on the radio. A tsunami was coming. It would be over three metres. The seawall at Wakinosawa Port that protects the vil­lage is five metres high, so we should be okay, thought Owada. He parked his car at the fire station and jumped into Division One’s fire truck.

He raced past the Owada Sawmill, over the train tracks, and parked behind the seawall. His men were already there, and all the gates had been shut. It was 3.10 pm.

‘Here it comes,’ said one of the firefighters minutes later. They were laughing with relief. The sea had risen over the lip of the dock. To the firefighters, it looked like another ankle-deep tsunami that would soon retreat – like the one a couple of days earlier. But the water kept rolling across the dock. Soon it was storming through a fishing shed and up the incline towards the seawall. Styrofoam boxes, floats, fishing nets had all been picked up and were being swept along. The laughter died away. Owada looked at the dock. It was submerged under half a metre of cold grey ocean. This was no training exercise.

‘Move! Get to higher ground!’

The men clambered up a ladder to the top of the seawall and slid down its sloped back. They could no longer see the water. But Owada heard a crash and looked up to see the wheelhouse of a fishing boat poking over the top of the wall. It was clear the water was rising fast.

‘We’ve got to warn people,’ he said to his men. ‘I’ll take the truck.’

Jamming the truck into gear, Owada switched on the loud-hailer and lurched over the railway track, and up Yonezaki’s main street. There were cars passing him, heading down to the port. He couldn’t believe it. Other people were walking towards the ocean, keen to see this unbridled force of nature.

‘The tsunami is crossing the bank. Evacuate to higher ground!’ he screamed over the loudhailer. His voice was shrill, his words clipped. ‘Run away. Hurry up, hurry up!’

Behind him, the fishing boat had been lifted over the seawall, and it rolled down the other side and landed upright five metres below. The ocean was now spilling over the wall into the town, and for the first time people could see the tsunami. The cars had stopped heading to the port; their drivers were now frantically trying to turn around. Those on foot were running up the hill. It was clear to Yuichi Owada that for many it was too late.

‘The problem was the elderly, the bedridden people, people who thought they were safe behind the seawall. We had no time to evacuate them, and we could not force them to evacuate. I live with that regret,’ he would tell me later.

The tsunami was picking up speed. Owada estimated it was moving at 50 kilometres an hour up Yonezaki’s main street. It had approached the coast travelling at 800 kilometres an hour, rapidly slowing and growing as it was squeezed against the shallow sea floor – ten billion tonnes of unstoppable salt water. One woman was standing on the footpath, staring at the roiling mass, frozen.

‘The tsunami is coming up the bank. Run away!’ screeched Owada through the loudhailer as he passed her. He couldn’t stop. He had to warn as many people as he could.

As it approached the railway line, the tsunami consumed its first home. The old wooden house didn’t so much collapse as implode. One second it was there, the next there was a puff of sea spray and it was gone, transformed into a swirling hurricane of splintered sticks as sharp as spears. With every building it destroyed, the tsunami created more mass, the debris forming an ever more powerful battering ram that it would use to obliterate everything in its path.

Yuichi Owada was now past the sawmill, 300 metres from the port. But he sensed that even here he was not safe from the tsunami. He looked out the driver’s window back down the hill. The fishing boat was on the move again, bashing into house after house like a pinball.

Towards the top of the hill, Owada stopped the truck and jumped out. Why weren’t these people moving fast enough? They seemed hypnotised by the tsunami. Like Lot’s wife, they couldn’t resist turning back to watch.

‘Keep moving! Go to the top of the hill,’ he yelled to some old people stumbling up the street.

But some had not moved fast enough. Down below, one man was being swept along, clinging to a sawmill log washed up from the port. But another log slammed into him, crushing his head and chest, and he slipped under the water. A small white car had been caught by the tsunami and was being pushed towards the sawmill. There was someone in it. Owada strained his eyes and saw an old woman, her mouth wide open. He could tell she was screaming but he couldn’t hear her. The car was slowly rolling, being sucked under by the tsunami into the black hole of debris it had harvested. Owada got one last glimpse of the woman before she disappeared. It was his neighbour Kazuko Abe. She taught Japanese dance to his two youngest daughters. And, though Owada didn’t see her, in the back seat of the car was Mrs Abe’s four-year-old granddaughter, Ayumi.

*

To Naomi Hiratsuka, it felt as if the house was jumping. She had been asleep holding her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Sae, when the earthquake started.

‘Toma, are you all right?’ she yelled. Her six-year-old son was playing in Koharu’s room. Kohura was still at school down the river.

‘I’m okay,’ he replied in a tiny voice. It was clear he was petrified.

Naomi could hear things smashing throughout the house. A vase in her bedroom fell, as did several framed photo­graphs. A windowpane cracked and slid out, shattering on the floor. The earthquake was subsiding now, so she clutched Sae to her chest and stood up. I must be careful where I walk, she thought. There was glass everywhere.

She staggered out into the hallway to find Toma and real­ised she was trapped. The bookcases in the hallway had fallen against the opposite wall, leaving piles of books and CDs on the floor. Then the house began to shake ferociously again. Naomi squatted down, holding Sae under her. At least there was noth­ing left to fall on them, except the ceiling. When was it going to stop? Naomi was desperate to get to Toma, who was trapped in Koharu’s room.

‘Sae, sit here. Stay still,’ she told the toddler. Naomi started clearing away books from in front of Koharu’s door. The aftershocks sent her scrambling to Sae, interrupting her rescue mission. It took her 30 minutes to make a path to the door.

Inside Koharu’s room, the entire floor was covered with the contents of shelves and toppled wardrobes. Where was Toma? A little head poked out from underneath Koharu’s desk.

‘Here, Mum,’ he said.

Naomi grabbed her son by the arm, and they went downstairs.

It was nearly 3.30 pm. Naomi’s parents-in-law were down­stairs with her husband’s 101-year-old grandmother. ‘We have to go and get Koharu,’ said Naomi.

‘No, we can’t,’ replied her father-in-law. ‘You have to look after the two youngest kids. Besides, it’s impossible to drive on the roads.’ In this house, his word was law. He was not only the head of the household, he was also the leader of Yokokawa, their village.

But Naomi could hear cars roaring past, going in the direc­tion of the school. She couldn’t question her father-in-law, let alone disobey him, so she reassured herself. ‘Koharu will be safe at the school. She is with the teachers and all her friends,’ said Naomi, looking at her parents-in-law. They said nothing.

Her husband – also a teacher – worked at another school. It was high on a hill, unlike the Okawa school. He would be safe.

Naomi heard a voice in the distance – it was a loudspeaker from across the river. But she couldn’t make out what the voice was saying. ‘Why aren’t our loudspeakers working?’ she asked her father-in-law. Like all Japanese towns and villages, Yokokawa had loudspeakers that whined out a tune every day at 5 pm to remind children to go home. They were also used for public announcements and during emergencies.

But the earthquake had knocked out the electricity, and the back-up batteries for Yokokawa’s loudspeakers were dead.

Naomi’s father-in-law decided to go out to his vegetable field downriver to pick up a radio he kept in a hut there. He was the village leader – he must find out what was going on. All Naomi could do now was try to prepare some dinner and hope to see Koharu tomorrow. She was a teacher, someone taught to put the well-being of her students first. She knew the teachers at the Okawa Primary School would have taken the children to the high ground.

*

The four-tonne truck was bouncing. Pig farmer Norio Kimura crouched down in the cage on the back, careful not to sit in the dollops of shit. The hose in his hand was still spraying water everywhere. It was like the truck was moving over a road full of potholes. Kimura couldn’t believe how long this quake was shaking for. He decided it was easily the biggest he had ever experienced. Then he heard a horrible wailing. It was the old cook, who had come tearing out of the farm’s kitchen. The shaking was finally slowing. Kimura jumped down from the truck and headed around the back of the kitchen to check the gas cylinders. They were lying on the ground, and all four were leaking gas. He shut them off. Inside the kitchen, Kimura tried to call home, but the line was not working. I must check on the pigs, he thought.

As he headed towards the pig sheds, the first thing he noticed were the feed tanks – the three of them had toppled and spilt tonnes of feed. That could wait. The sheds themselves seemed fine, but once inside Kimura had a problem. The earthquake had jiggled the wooden slat floor, shifting the slats apart and causing hundreds of pigs to fall through into the waste drains a metre below. Should I haul them out or head home to check on the family, thought Kimura.

A colleague joined him inside the shed. ‘I just heard on the radio a three-metre-high tsunami is coming,’ he said.

Three metres. My house is at least five or six metres above sea level, calculated Kimura. ‘Help me pull these pigs out of the pits,’ he said. It was going to take hours.

*

In his cupboard-sized office inside the Fukushima Dai-ichi complex, reactor inspector Takashi Sato had stopped watch­ing the clock and was determined to get more of his Reactor 5 safety report finished before the end of the day. He struck the keyboard with his index finger. The building shuddered. He knew immediately it was an earthquake. Not another one, he thought. There have been so many tremors in the past month or so – more than usual. Sato’s desk suddenly began to bounce like it was possessed. Files from a shelf above vibrated forward and then fell, nearly hitting him on the head. An entire shelf collapsed. This was no ordinary quake. Sato rolled back his chair and plunged under his desk. Luckily he did, because seconds later an entire ceiling panel split and crashed onto his seat. Then another panel fell, and another, until the entire ceil­ing was on the floor. Sato was in a crouch position under his desk. How long can this go on for, he wondered. It felt like it had been going for five minutes. Then the earthquake didn’t so much stop as slow down.

Sato’s director appeared at the door. ‘We’ve got to go imme­diately to the earthquake-proof building,’ he said. ‘Let’s go.’

The earthquake-proof building, or seismic-isolation centre, was a two-storey white reinforced concrete bunker designed by TEPCO to act as a shelter and command centre in major emergencies such as this. It had two air filtration systems to keep out radiation and was built on dampers, or giant shock absorbers, so it could ride out even the biggest tremors. Sato waited outside as a roll call was taken. Inside, he joined hun­dreds of TEPCO employees and contractors, many of whom were transfixed by the images on a TV monitor on the wall. It showed the sea from above. A news helicopter was hovering over the coast near Sendai, waiting. Flashing across the screen in red letters was a message: a big tsunami is coming. The chop­per was waiting to catch the first wave and beam it into tens of millions of Japanese homes. It was the first in what is called the tsunami train, a series of waves generated by a massive offshore earthquake, like ripples on an enormous pond. The waves in the train can come in surges that are as little as five minutes, or as long as an hour, apart. And they can keep coming for hours.

This would be the first truly epic natural disaster to be broadcast as it happened, live around the world. Sato, too, was mesmerised. For him and the hundreds inside the bunker, the only visual link with the outside world was this giant monitor, now showing a long straight wave forming a few kilometres out to sea. It stretched far beyond the zoom of the camera’s lens. They didn’t know it yet, but these tsunamis were bearing down on a 700-kilometre expanse of north-eastern Japan.

Suddenly, the helicopter was behind the wave, following it in. The tsunami was growing as it neared land, its long white cap foaming and frothing. It was now less than a kilometre out and was thundering towards the coast. Sato could hear people in the bunker gasping as they watched the monster storm towards the shore. They didn’t realise the ocean surge was also bearing down on the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant. Sato tried to block out the din from his horrified colleagues so he could think. This can’t be real. Maybe the wave will wash over a dike and flood a few houses. That should be it. Sato heard a collec­tive gasp and looked back up at the monitor. A gurgling black mass was rolling over the coast.

*

The creak of the timber came first, then the languid side-to-side motion. But with each passing second the force of the earthquake grew. Oyster farmer Yoshiharu Yoshida caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. A vase tipped and smashed onto the floor. A wooden statue of Daikokuten, the Japanese god of wealth and fortune, also teetered and fell. Everything was falling. The sound was deafening, as everything in his house was tossed about in a hellish cacophony. The fisherman was used to keeping his feet in the most terrible of storms, so he propped himself against the wall and managed to stand. He staggered out of the front door of his home and rolled onto his backside on the driveway. But, even here, in the open, it didn’t feel safe. His mouth fell open. The earth in his yard was cracking apart, creating deep gashes through the middle of his garden. Yoshida always imagined he would be swallowed by the sea, not the land. Eventually, the earth stopped shaking and he looked around for his wife of 31 years. Emiko was jogging towards him from the shed.

The fisherman knew what he had to do. ‘I’m going to save the boat. There’ll be a tsunami on its way for sure. You’ll be safe up in the house.’

Emiko nodded; she knew the drill. This was the second time in less than 50 hours that Yoshida was fleeing into the face of a potential tsunami. When the magnitude-7.2 quake had hit in the early afternoon of 9 March, he had left Emiko behind and taken the boat out, returning only when the tsunami warning had been lifted. But, this time, he knew some­thing terrible was coming.

Within five minutes, Yoshida was at Koeda Port, untying the Maru Yoshi Maru. Several other fishermen were there too, preparing to put to sea. But one was walking back to his car.

‘Kumagai-san, what are you doing?’ shouted Yoshida.

‘I just want to pop back to check on the house,’ replied Kumagai.

‘No, no, no. This one isn’t a joke. Come on, get on your boat and get out of here like the rest of us,’ said Yoshida.

Kumagai stopped and thought. He raised his hand to acknowledge his comrade’s greater wisdom and turned back towards his boat.

The engine of the Maru Yoshi Maru thundered into life, and Yoshida reversed the boat away from the dock. It was a minute or two past 3 pm. Yoshida reckoned the tsunami would hit within 30 minutes of the earthquake. That gave him 15 minutes at best to get to open water. Using his remote controls at the bow of the 12-metre boat, he opened the throttle and turned to port. The tsunami would come from the south-east through the chan­nel between the Tomari and Karakuwa peninsulas, and build in height on Hirota Bay before slamming into Rikuzentakata town at the head of the bay. Yoshida knew he must head for the channel, and for the heart of the tsunami. Behind him in the dis­tance was Rikuzentakata, hiding behind its 5.5-metre seawall and its forest of 70,000 pines – once declared by the national government to be one of Japan’s 100 most beautiful sites. Soon it would be one of the country’s most haunting, reminiscent of an atomised Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

Yoshida wound his way through a maze of oyster beds, until he had nothing but clear water ahead of him. The boat was doing 12 knots – its top speed. In front of him were a few fishing boats also bolting port. He looked around and saw another dozen or so trailing behind him. After ten minutes, he was near the mouth of Hirota Bay, between the two pen­insulas. Then he saw it. It was perfect – a symmetrical grey line against the overcast horizon. The fishing boats in front rose and fell over the wave. Seconds later, Yoshida’s boat met it and climbed – one, two, three, four, five metres. The bow dipped, and he was over the tsunami. But it was still forming, still growing in its destructive power. It had seven kilometres to go until it reached Rikuzentakata at the top of the bay.

Yoshida shook his head. By then, it would be a monster. He picked up the radio.

‘Emiko, the tsunami is coming. It’s heading now towards Rikuzentakata. You’ll see it any second now. Be careful.’

There was no answer.

Yoshida wound back the throttle and turned to watch the collision. The tsunami was smashing into the sides of Hirota Bay as it approached Rikuzentakata. The wave was rising, rearing back like a snake about to strike. Yoshida strained his eyes and thought he saw white smoke drifting over the town. Except it was not smoke; it was an explosion of sea spray. Rikuzentakata was being consumed.

*

Forty-one minutes after the earthquake’s opening shudder, the first tsunami crashed over the front line of defence at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Plant: a 2.5-kilometre breakwater of 60,000 concrete blocks. Eight minutes later, an even larger wave surged over the second and last line of protection: the com­pound’s 5.7-metre seawall. TEPCO’s earthquake-proof bunker was just 400 metres from the seawall, but it sat on a raised area 35 metres above sea level. Inside it, on the monitor, the company’s employees watched a fast-moving wave the colour of oil roiling across the Sendai plain, further north up the coast. It was pushing fishing boats inland, exploding plastic greenhouses and picking up parked trucks. In the images taken from high in the sky, Sato could see the black wave tearing apart homes. As he watched, the tsunami seemed to transform from a liquid into a solid mass of timber, roofs and vehicles. Parts of it were even on fire.

The monster was travelling over the land at more than 60 kilometres an hour. The camera operator on the chopper zoomed out, revealing the brown plains of Sendai that were about to be inundated. There was another collective groan from inside the bunker. The vision now showed cars trying to outrun the surge. Some had stopped and were doing three-point turns, the drivers realising too late what was coming for them. Other cars were trapped on roads running along the face of the tsunami and were desperately trying to turn off and escape. One didn’t make it to a side road, and the little white car disappeared under the rolling wave.

‘The tsunami has hit the side of the turbine buildings.’ It was not the TV but a voice inside the bunker.

Sato was jolted away from the television monitor. What did they say? Only now did he realise that the same wave had hit the Fukushima coast too.

‘The tsunami alarm said the height would be about three metres,’ said Atsufumi Yoshizawa. Yoshizawa was the director of reactors 5 and 6 at Fukushima Dai-ichi, and was outranked only by plant manager Masao Yoshida. A lithe, quietly spoken man with neatly parted salt and pepper hair, Yoshizawa was a 30-year TEPCO veteran. ‘I felt that the plant would not be affected by three metre waves,’ he recalled.

The earthquake had already knocked out power to the nuclear plant, triggering the automatic shutdown of Fukushima Dai-ichi’s only functioning reactors – units 1, 2, and 3. But the plant’s emergency defences appeared to be working. Thirteen diesel generators – each the size of a train locomotive – had kicked in, running the emergency pumps to cool the reactors.

Most of the generators were in the basement of the turbine building; others were on the ground floors of reactors 4 and 6. But suddenly there was panic inside the bunker.

‘I got some information from outside,’ said Yoshizawa. ‘One bit of information was that heavy oil tanks were being washed away by the waves. And then the pumps in the plant stopped and the power failed. That was when I realised a huge tsunami had come.’

The diesel back-up generators had been submerged by the seawater that had flooded the basements of the turbine buildings and other generator sites. Electrical circuits had been shorted and generator fuel tanks washed away. There was no power source cooling the reactors. All that was left to stop Fukushima Dai-ichi’s nuclear fuel from overheating and disgorging radiation were banks of what are called ‘coping’ batteries. They had enough charge to last just eight hours.

‘The power was failing, electricity was running short,’ said Yoshizawa. As a nuclear engineer and one of TEPCO’s most senior reactor managers, he knew they were in deep trouble, the worst type of trouble. ‘All power to the central control room was lost. There were batteries we could use immediately after the power failure at the plant, but batteries die and we must replace them. We needed new batteries. But how could we find them?’

Takashi Sato was no longer transfixed by the TV monitor on the wall of the bunker. The drama was playing out right here, and he knew the clock was ticking.

*

Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Tetsuro Fukuyama no longer had to worry about the prime minister’s political-donation scandal. The earthquake and tsunami had consumed it too. At

2.46 pm, Fukuyama had held on to his desk, watching on his office TV as the quake also rattled the hearing in the Upper House Diet committee room nearby. There was his boss, the prime minister Naoto Kan, sitting in the committee room, his mouth hanging open, gripping his chair as if he were riding a roller coaster. High above him, the chandeliers were swinging like pendulums, and the slapping of the blinds on the windows could be heard above the worried chatter and cries of MPs.

‘The hall has many chandeliers, and they were swaying madly,’ recalled Naoto Kan. ‘I was worried about those people directly under the chandeliers, so I was looking up at the lights from my chair. Some Diet officials were taking refuge under their chairs and desks.’

Tetsuro Fukuyama was the only senior government figure working on the fifth floor of the prime minister’s office when the earthquake hit. ‘Keep watching the TV. Call the emergency team to the crisis management centre,’ the deputy chief Cabinet secretary ordered his secretary. ‘I’m going there now.’

At the crisis management centre in the building’s basement, Tetsuro Fukuyama was joined by the prime minister and more than a hundred other ministers, ministerial officials, bureaucrats and staffers. Desks were arranged in a large oval formation, with the prime minister at the centre. About a dozen huge television monitors were lined around the walls, broadcasting live cover­age from all the TV networks and footage from Self-Defence Force helicopters. Telephones were ringing all over the place, and when a crucial message was received it was rebroadcast over a loudspeaker to everyone in the centre.

‘Every second we were getting reports. How many fires and where they were,’ Fukuyama recounted later. ‘Reports about road conditions, derailed trains, which rail lines had stopped, and also power failures. We also got a report about the emergency stop of the reactors at the Fukushima Dai­ichi Nuclear Plant. With an emergency stop, it meant it was under control. So for the moment we were not concerned with the plant.’

For the prime minister, the automatic shutdown, or SCRAM, at Fukushima Dai-ichi and other nuclear plants along the coast meant he had one less problem to worry about, in what was developing into the worst natural disaster in Japan’s recorded history. ‘They were able to make an emergency stop [at Fukushima],’ Naoto Kan told me later. ‘A large diesel power generator for emergencies was functioning and the cooling sys­tem had not failed. The reactors were under control. So when I heard that I was relieved.’

Months later, serious questions would be asked about whether the magnitude-9 earthquake had wrenched important cooling pipes at Reactor 1 – the oldest and most seismically vulnerable at Fukushima – causing them to burst. If this was the case, and the reactor’s cooling system was already compro­mised, it would have major safety implications for all of Japan’s ageing nuclear power stations, raising more questions about their susceptibility to huge tremors. But TEPCO would insist that all the damage at Fukushima Dai-ichi was caused by the tsunami (see Chapter 3).

Then, at 3.40 pm, another announcement came through from Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), one that chilled to the bone many of those in the crisis management centre.

‘It said, “All AC power has been lost at the Fukushima Dai­ichi Nuclear Plant, and all cooling functions have stopped,”’ recalled Tetsuro Fukuyama.

Fukuyama was a politician, not a nuclear engineer. What did this mean?

‘When will the power be restored?’ demanded someone in the crisis centre.

‘We are looking into it now,’ answered someone else.

The deputy chief Cabinet secretary could feel the tension in the room rise. I must start taking notes, he decided.

Naoto Kan talked to his defence minister and ordered Japan’s Self-Defence Force to be mobilised. Twenty thousand troops would head to the tsunami zone immediately, rising to 100,000 in the coming days. It would be the biggest deployment of Japanese soldiers since the end of the war. For now, he had no new information about what was happening in Fukushima. The silence from the operator TEPCO was worrying. ‘When I heard the cooling function had failed, it meant all power had been lost,’ said Kan. ‘I thought this would be truly dangerous. I knew that unless cooling continued, it would cause a meltdown.’

His deputy chief Cabinet secretary was only now realising what was at stake. ‘At the emergency headquarters, the prime minister mentioned the possibility of an extremely critical con­dition if cooling was not possible,’ said Tetsuro Fukuyama. ‘The general argument then was that if the cooling function could not be restored and the temperature of the core rose, meltdown could occur in about ten hours.’

Later, Fukuyama would open his notebook and scribble in an entry:

Declaration of Nuclear Emergency Situation [by] Prime Minister
Fukushima Unit 1, Unit 2, Unit 3
Not operating because of tsunami
Cooling by cooling system with battery [life of] 8 hours
Reactor core temperature up
10 hours meltdown will happen
Very anxious situation

But there would be a delay in declaring a nuclear emergency. In the early evening, the industry minister Banri Kaieda was briefed by TEPCO about the crisis engulfing Fukushima Dai-ichi. Kaieda immediately raced to the prime minister’s office, urging Naoto Kan to make the declaration and establish the Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters. Under law, the headquarters had to be chaired by the prime minister. But Kan appeared unmoved by his industry minister’s insistence, and unconvinced by his argument that a nuclear emergency needed to be declared right away.

‘On what grounds?’ demanded Kan.4

‘It took time to get the understanding of the prime minister,’ Kaieda said later.5

In fact, it would take at least another hour to bring Naoto Kan round. In the meantime, the prime minister had gone off to a meeting of opposition leaders and was attending to other business.

More than three hours after the tsunami had swamped Fukushima Dai-ichi, Kan finally declared a nuclear emergency. But the delay had held up efforts by local authorities in Fukushima to inform residents near the crippled plant about the unfolding crisis.6 After the declaration, the prime minister chaired the first meeting of the Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters. He had also summoned representatives from TEPCO, NISA and the Nuclear Safety Commission. He wanted a full and frank briefing about what was going on at the nuclear plant.

It didn’t get off to a good start. ‘You say all power sources are down. Are you saying every single source?’ Kan asked the director-general of NISA, Nobuaki Terasaka.7

‘Yes, every single one,’ replied Terasaka.

‘But there must be back-up batteries,’ demanded the prime minister.

‘They are all useless,’ said Terasaka.

They were useless because they had been submerged by seawater. Kan’s short fuse ignited. ‘Do you understand anything technical?’ he snapped.

‘I am a graduate of the Faculty of Economics,’ explained Terasaka. ‘But I understand the basics of technology.’8

Naoto Kan was stunned. He was asking for detailed tech­nical advice about a developing nuclear crisis from his chief nuclear regulator. Instead, he had an economics graduate standing before him. ‘The director-general of NISA came to me and reported on conditions,’ Naoto Kan told me later. ‘But I couldn’t understand him very well. I felt his explanation was inadequate. So I asked him if he was a nuclear specialist. He said he had a degree in economics and he was not a nuclear specialist. So here is a person who isn’t a nuclear expert heading up the nuclear safety agency, who was to take direct responses to such accidents, coming to explain to me what was going on.’

Nobuaki Terasaka was a classic product of Japan’s bureau­cratic merry-go-round. He was no nuclear specialist; he was a graduate of the University of Tokyo’s School of Economics. But it was his turn for a top job. The top job on offer in July 2009 just happened to be that of Japan’s main nuclear safety agency. So it was his. ‘[Terasaka] did not understand what he was talk­ing about,’ Kan would tell me. ‘He had been assigned to his post under the assumption there would not be any [nuclear] accidents.’

This exchange deepened the prime minister’s inherent mis­trust of the bureaucracy. Naoto Kan now felt he had to take charge himself.

*

Norio Kimura was taking the inland route home to Okuma. The coast road the pig farmer usually travelled was near sea level, so if there had been a tsunami it would be flooded, he thought. It had taken him two hours to haul the pigs out of the waste drains – 300 of them. His body was aching and he was covered in shit. He smelt just like the pig farmer he was. Kimura had tried to call Miyuki’s mobile and the house phone a dozen times. But he couldn’t get through to his wife. The network was probably overloaded, he decided. He assumed that, after the earthquake, Miyuki had immediately left work and set out for home.

Kimura was just a few hundred metres from his house when he saw the mountain of debris. He felt the blood drain from his face. He could not drive any further – there was too much rub­bish strewn over the road. He saw a shattered desk, upturned chairs, futons, couches, photo albums, walls of houses, splin­tered timber and cars crushed like aluminium cans. Kimura picked his way past the detritus of his neighbours’ lives and was suddenly confused. Where is my home? Where is the garden? It should all be here, he thought. But all that was there was a concrete foundation. Kimura felt queasy. Where is my family? It is getting dark. He straightened up, shook himself. Got to think. Where could they be?

Okuma’s sports centre was a designated evacuation point in the event of a natural disaster. Kimura ran back to his car.

The sports centre was in a state of chaos. Hundreds of people were there; many were crying; most were confused. Some were on mobile phones, trying to contact the missing. After checking the car park for his wife’s hatchback, Kimura began weaving his way through the throng, searching for his family. Then he saw them. His mother and his eldest daughter, Mayu.

‘Are you okay? Where is everyone else?’ asked Kimura.

But his mother couldn’t answer; she was hysterical.

Kimura took Mayu gently by the shoulders. ‘Mayu, where is Mum, Grandad and Yuna?’

Mayu shrugged. ‘I don’t know. Grandad came to the school after the earthquake, but he told me to wait there. He was going back to check on Grandma.’

Kimura thought. ‘Mum, please calm down. I need to ask you something. Did Dad come back home after the school?’

Kimura’s mother shook her head. She had headed to high ground after the quake.

‘Mayu, I am going out to check some other places. You stay here and look after Grandma.’

Kimura checked two hospitals and three more shelters. There was no sign of Miyuki, or little Yuna, or his father. He tried his wife’s phone again. There was just silence – no ringing, not even a recorded message saying her phone was switched off or out of range.

By the time Kimura got back to where his home once stood, the sun had set, and it was pitch black. There were no street lights any more, no homes. There was no light at all except for the torch in his hand. There was no sound, apart from the rolling of waves on the beach and the sucking of mud with each step that Kimura took through this wasteland.

But then he heard something, and he saw it coming towards him. ‘Bell!’

The Doberman nuzzled against Kimura’s legs. He had thought their dog would have been washed away. Then his hand ran over something around Bell’s neck, and for the first time Kimura felt scared. The dog was wearing her leash. But when everyone had left home this morning, Bell had been in her cage, thought Kimura. Miyuki must have made it home, put on the dog’s leash and let her out. But where is my wife?

*

From the deck of his boat on Hirota Bay, Yoshiharu Yoshida could see Kesennuma burning. The oyster farmer couldn’t see the actual town – it was obscured by the Karakuwa Peninsula – but from the surface of the bay he watched the inferno light up the night sky.

‘I could see the fires leaping into the night from over the peninsula. The sky was scarlet. It illuminated the black smoke that was twisting into the air. Kesennuma burnt all night.’

Kesennuma would burn for four days. Just south of Rikuzentakata and Hirota Bay, the town was being shaken, swamped and scorched by earth, water and fire. Huge tuna ships moored in the harbour had been slammed into one another by the tsunami, igniting thousands of litres of heavy fuel. Like the old wooden fireships used by the English against the Spanish Armada in the sixteenth century, the blazing tuna boats had torched everything around them. Leaking burning fuel, they were driven into central Kesennuma by the waves, setting alight homes and buildings. They were creating a firestorm.

Yoshida and his fellow survivors on Hirota Bay had never seen anything like it. It was like watching hell. Turning west, the fisherman tried to make out Rikuzentakata at the head of the bay. Darkness. Yoshida knew there was nothing to burn there, because the town no longer existed.

He shivered and breathed into his clasped hands. Light snow was falling, and he was frozen to the bone. His stomach growled at him.

Even on his boat, Yoshida could feel the massive aftershocks. What he couldn’t feel were the tsunamis sucking him in, and then pushing him out. Yoshida would only realise later, when the dawn allowed him to see his position in relation to the bay, that the sea was still alive hours after the earthquake and was rolling his boat in and out, backward and forward. The tsunami train was still coming, its surges as powerful on the way out as they were on the way in.

‘There’s debris everywhere,’ echoed a voice from the dark. It was one of the other fishermen floating on the bay. They had kept close for hours, so close they could talk without radios.

Yoshida switched on his lights and saw what the tsunami had sucked back out to sea. Tatami mats, splintered timber, an entire house, plastic drums. He swung one of his spotlights about and counted six cars bobbing near his boat. Yoshida couldn’t believe how well they floated. This is dangerous, he thought. I have to move further out to sea. He cupped his hands around his mouth and called out to the flotilla. ‘Let’s move further out. It’s too risky here. All the wreckage is floating out towards us.’

Yoshida turned on the engine and heard a whining noise. There was something wrong. He moved to the stern and opened the hatch, and found a wicker chair caught around the propel­ler shaft. It took him a little while to saw it and cut it away. Only then could he escape this drifting field of debris, all that remained of Rikuzentakata. He wondered if his wife had sur­vived the tsunami and if his house was still standing. At least his beloved boat was safe.

*

‘Anyone who has a car here, go out and get the battery from it.’

The words washed over Takashi Sato as if he was in a dream. Slowly, it sank in. The people inside the earthquake-proof bunker were being asked to go and scavenge car batteries to power the nuclear plant’s control panels. Masao Yoshida and his deputy, Atsufumi Yoshizawa, couldn’t tell if the emergency cooling systems were working because their instruments and meters were dead.

‘For example, we didn’t know the pressure in the dry wells or the water levels,’ Yoshizawa would tell me later. ‘I was fight­ing with the fear of whether or not the plant conditions were safe, and whether the people there could take refuge safely.’

They did not know how much water was covering the fuel rods in reactors 1 and 2. (The batteries powering the instru­ments for Reactor 3 were still working but would soon fail.) The only thing that could help Japan know if it was facing a nuclear meltdown could be a handful of car batteries.

Like the hundreds of others in the earthquake-proof build­ing, Sato had been told to stay at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant to help get the situation under control. More than 5000 other workers had been allowed to leave. Sato wished he could have joined them. What am I here for, he wondered. He was a reac­tor inspector, not an operator. So far, all he had been asked to do was go and pull the battery out of his car. But there was no way Sato was giving them his battery – he needed it to get out of Fukushima Dai-ichi, when they let him. He looked at his mobile phone – there was no signal inside the bunker. He couldn’t even tell his family he was safe. And what about them? Did they get away from the tsunami? Our house is just metres from the ocean, he thought. Did Nao get home safely from school? Is she with her mother? Sato rummaged through his bag and pulled out his diary. If I’m stuck in this bunker, I might as well jot down some notes, he decided. Sato wrote his first entry:

2.46 – Earthquake Plant – automatic shutdown of turbines and reactors

At about 9 pm, the car batteries were finally hooked up to the instrument panels using cables collected from storage rooms. There was good news. The water level inside Reactor 1 was about half a metre above the top of the fuel assemblies. It was below where it should have been, but it was enough to reassure the plant’s operators that no fuel had melted (although it would later be revealed that the gauges were wrong, and the superheated water had dropped below the fuel rods, exposing the reactor core). If there was a core meltdown, toxic radioactive substances such as caesium-137 and iodine-131 would seep into the contain­ment vessel of the reactor. And if that vessel was breached, huge amounts of radiation would leach out into the environment.

It could be like the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Soviet Ukraine, when operator error and design flaws led to a com­plete meltdown. A series of explosions then scattered huge plumes of radiation into the atmosphere over Europe and the western Soviet Union, triggering the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people. Dozens of emergency workers battling the meltdown died of radiation sickness, and a report by a group of United Nations agencies called the Chernobyl Forum estimated that 4000 people who were exposed to large doses of contamination will die of radiation-induced cancers and leu­kaemia. The Chernobyl disaster was the worst nuclear accident in history, rating a seven on the International Nuclear Event Scale – the most serious ranking, meaning a ‘major release of radioactive material with widespread health and environmental effects’. Twenty-six years after the meltdown, there was still a 2600-square-kilometre exclusion zone around the deformed carcass of the Chernobyl plant.

Masao Yoshida knew all about Chernobyl, but, with the gauges showing the water level inside Reactor 1 above the fuel, he thought the situation was under control. But now the panel was showing there was a problem. A big problem.

‘In the case of Reactor 1, we could tell that the pressure in the dry well was rather high, so the only way was venting,’ said Atsufumi Yoshizawa. ‘The pressure in the dry well was designed to withstand a certain level of pressure, but when the pressure exceeds that level it becomes impossible to contain it. The worst case was considerable destructive force destroying the container.’

In other words, an explosion. Pressure inside Reactor 1’s con­tainment vessel was rising – a sign that the core cooling system was not working. The pressure was being caused by the reactor’s residual ‘decay’ heat. Even after a reactor stops operating, the nuclear fuel inside will continue to radiate enormous amounts of heat. If there is no cooling to remove this decay heat from the reactor, the temperature will continue to rise, to the point where it could melt the nuclear fuel. And because the coolant inside Reactor 1 was not being circulated, it was evaporating.

‘We may have to vent the reactor,’ said Yoshida.

Yoshida’s bosses at TEPCO weren’t so sure about vent­ing. This emergency procedure had never been done before in Japan, and it was certain to sow further doubts in the public consciousness about the safety of nuclear power, an industry that had earned TEPCO tens of billions. It could also leave the company wide open to substantial damages for radioactive contamination.

But Yoshida was choosing the lesser of two evils.

‘This was the procedure in an emergency. So we followed the procedure,’ said Atsufumi Yoshizawa. ‘There could be some kind of explosion so we had to [vent] to release the pressure.’

Yoshizawa knew this would release radioactive steam into the atmosphere. But, if they didn’t vent, pressure inside the reactor’s containment vessel would continue to build and it could explode. That would spew infinitely more radiation into the atmosphere and across Japan. Once the reactor was decompressed, they could start injecting water to cool it.

Heads started turning towards the TV monitor again. Something was flashing across the screens. An evacuation order for everyone living within three kilometres of the nuclear plant had been issued by the government in Tokyo. Takashi Sato couldn’t believe it. If his wife and daughter were alive, they now had to run. He returned to his notes and made one last entry for 11 March:

Reactor 1 – RPV [reactor pressure vessel] water level
down, fear of release of radioactive substances
Evacuation Order for radius of 3 kilometres
Order to stay indoors for radius 3–10 kilometres

The chaos soon to be generated by the evacuation order would also hold up emergency power vehicles sent by the government and TEPCO to help restore electricity to the site. The lead truck was stuck in a grinding traffic jam caused by thousands of panicked and fleeing residents. But then they got a break. A back-up generator truck from another power company arrived at 11 pm. Then their hope dissolved. The power cable it had brought was too short to hook up.9 They also had the wrong plugs.

Their other hope was that batteries TEPCO had asked to be brought to the plant would arrive, and they could use them to open safety relief (SR) valves to release steam from the over­heating reactors. Ten 12-volt batteries were enough to power an SR valve. So the company had ordered a senior official to get hundreds of them to the site pronto. But when the Self-Defence Force got to the plant, they had brought only two-volt batteries. TEPCO would eventually get hold of more than a thousand 12-volt batteries, which were being stored at a base 55 kilometres from Fukushima Dai-ichi. But by this time there was no one who was prepared to brave the fallout and drive them to the plant.

‘Things that we needed most didn’t come at all,’ recounted a TEPCO official who was at the site.10

In Japan, this terrible day would become known simply as san ten ichi ichi: 3/11.


Excerpted from Fukushima by Mark Willacy. Copyright © 2013 by Mark Willacy.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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