The first 24 hours of the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi were more chaotic and dangerous than the outside world ever dreamed. When the tsunami hit and knocked out the plant’s backup generators, workers turned into scavengers, searching nearby homes for flashlights and ripping the batteries out of cars in a desperate attempt to get broken gauges working again, according to new reactor “diaries” released by Tepco and Wall Street Journal interviews. The meltdown started almost immediately—and workers didn’t even realize it.
Workers thought the reactor’s backup batteries would buy them eight hours, not realizing those batteries were down. Pressure soared past safe levels, but Tepco executives waited seven hours to vent the reactor, until Prime Minister Naoto Kan flew in for a tense meeting/shouting match with Tepco’s nuclear chief. “This is no time to dilly-dally,” Kan cried. “Do it fast, whatever way you can!” With the power down, a brave shift manager had to open the vents by hand, exposing himself to a hundred times a normal person’s yearly radiation exposure.