After quake: Mistakes, misfortune, meltdown

Japanese military helicopters dumped water from huge buckets onto the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant.

By Thursday morning the last line of defense came down to this: a police water cannon, a helicopter maneuver designed for wildfires and a race against time to get the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant rewired to the grid.

As a crew of about 100 Japanese workers and soldiers battled to keep a string of six nuclear reactors from meltdown just short of a week into Japan’s nuclear crisis, the arsenal of weapons at their disposal remained improvised, low-tech and underpowered.

A police riot control truck was hauled in over uneven roads to keep a spray of water on the No. 3 and No. 4 reactors. In the air above, Japan Self-Defense Forces helicopters made runs with baskets of water in a desperate attempt to cool exposed fuel rods believed to have already partly melted down.

Meanwhile, technicians were dashing to complete what amounts to the world’s largest extension cord: an electric cable to connect the stricken plant from the north and allow Tokyo Electric Power Company, which runs the plant, to restart critical water pumps taken out by the massive March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

Breaking with tradition

An examination of Japan’s effort to contain its escalating nuclear disaster reveals a series of missteps, bad luck and desperate improvisation. What also emerges is a country that has begun to question some of its oldest values. Japanese have long revered the country’s bureaucratic competence, especially when contrasted with its political dysfunction. Japan has proudly often chosen to go its own way and turn down outside assistance. But what happens when competence begins to break down? And what happens when a disaster is so overwhelming that outside help is vital?


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