It’s been one of the mysteries of Japan’s ongoing nuclear disaster: How much of the damage did the March 11 earthquake inflict on Fukushima Daiichi’s reactors in the 40 minutes before the devastating tsunami arrived? The stakes are high: If the quake alone structurally compromised the plant and the safety of its nuclear fuel, then every other similar reactor in Japan is at risk.

Throughout the months of lies and misinformation, one story has stuck: “The earthquake knocked out the plant’s electric power, halting cooling to its reactors,” as the government spokesman Yukio Edano said at a March 15 press conference in Tokyo. The story, which has been repeated again and again, boils down to this: “after the earthquake, the tsunami – a unique, unforeseeable [the Japanese word is soteigai] event - then washed out the plant’s back-up generators, shutting down all cooling and starting the chain of events that would cause the world’s first triple meltdown to occur.”

But what if recirculation pipes and cooling pipes, burst, snapped, leaked, and broke completely after the earthquake -- long before the tidal wave reached the facilities, long before the electricity went out? This would surprise few people familiar with the 40-year-old Unit 1, the grandfather of the nuclear reactors still operating in Japan.

The authors have spoken to several workers at the plant who recite the same story: Serious damage to piping and at least one of the reactors before the tsunami hit. All have requested anonymity because they are still working at the plant or are connected with TEPCO. One worker, a maintenance engineer in his late twenties who was at the Fukushima complex on March 11, recalls hissing and leaking pipes.  “I personally saw pipes that came apart and I assume that there were many more that had been broken throughout the plant. There’s no doubt that the earthquake did a lot of damage inside the plant," he said. "There were definitely leaking pipes, but we don’t know which pipes – that has to be investigated. I also saw that part of the wall of the turbine building for Unit 1 had come away. That crack might have affected the reactor.”

The reactor walls of the reactor are quite fragile, he notes. “If the walls are too rigid, they can crack under the slightest pressure from inside so they have to be breakable because if the pressure is kept inside and there is a buildup of pressure, it can damage the equipment inside the walls so it needs to be allowed to escape. It’s designed to give during a crisis, if not it could be worse – that might be shocking to others, but to us it’s common sense.”

A second worker, a technician in his late 30s, who was also on site at the time of the earthquake, narrated what happened. “It felt like the earthquake hit in two waves, the first impact was so intense you could see the building shaking, the pipes buckling, and within minutes, I saw pipes bursting. Some fell off the wall. Others snapped. I was pretty sure that some of the oxygen tanks stored on site had exploded but I didn’t see for myself. Someone yelled that we all needed to evacuate and I was good with that. But I was severely alarmed because as I was leaving I was told and I could see that several pipes had cracked open, including what I believe were cold water supply pipes. That would mean that coolant couldn’t get to the reactor core. If you can’t sufficiently get the coolant to the core, it melts down. You don’t have to have to be a nuclear scientist to figure that out.”

As he was heading to his car, he could see the walls of the reactor one building itself had already started to collapse. “There were holes in them. In the first few minutes, no one was thinking about a tsunami. We were thinking about survival.”

A third worker was coming into work late when the earthquake hit. “I was in a building nearby when the earthquake shook. After the second shockwave hit, I heard a loud explosion that was almost deafening. I looked out the window and I could see white smoke coming from reactor one. I thought to myself, ‘this is the end.’”

When the worker got to the office five to 15 minutes later the supervisor ordered them all to evacuate, explaining, “there’s been an explosion of some gas tanks in reactor one, probably the oxygen tanks. In addition to this there has been some structural damage, pipes have burst, meltdown is possible. Please take shelter immediately.” (It should be noted that there have been several explosions at Daiichi even after the March 11 earthquake, one of which TEPCO stated, “was probably due to a gas tank left behind in the debris”.)

However, while the employees prepared to leave, the tsunami warning came. Many of them fled to the top floor of a building near the site and waited to be rescued.

The reason for official reluctance to admit that the earthquake did direct structural damage to reactor one is obvious. Katsunobu Onda, author of TEPCO: The Dark Empire (東京電力・暗黒の帝国), who sounded the alarm about the firm in his 2007 book explains it this way: “If TEPCO and the government of Japan admit an earthquake can do direct damage to the reactor, this raises suspicions about the safety of every reactor they run. They are using a number of antiquated reactors that have the same systematic problems, the same wear and tear on the piping.”

In a previous story, Kei Sugaoka, a Japanese engineer who worked at the Unit 1 site, says that he wasn’t surprised that a meltdown took place after the earthquake. He sent the Japanese government a letter, dated June 28, 2000, warning them of the problems there. It took the Japanese government more than two years to act on that warning. Mr. Sugaoka has also said he saw yakuza tattoos on many of the cleanup crew staff. When interviewed on May 23 he stated, “The plant had problems galore and the approach taken with them was piecemeal. Most of the critical work: construction work, inspection work, and welding were entrusted to sub-contracted employees with little technical background or knowledge of nuclear radiation. I can’t remember there ever being a disaster drill. The TEPCO employees never got their hands dirty.”

Onda notes, “I’ve spent decades researching TEPCO and its nuclear power plants and what I’ve found, and what government reports confirm is that the nuclear reactors are only as strong as their weakest links, and those links are the pipes.”

During his research, Onda spoke with several engineers who worked at the TEPCO plants. One told him that often piping would not match up the way it should according to the blueprints. In that case, the only solution was to use heavy machinery to pull the pipes close enough together to weld them shut. Inspection of piping was often cursory and the backs of the pipes, which were hard to reach, were often ignored. Since the inspections themselves were generally cursory and done by visual checks, it was easy to ignore them. Repair jobs were rushed; no one wanted to be exposed to nuclear radiation longer than necessary.

Onda adds, “When I first visited the Fukushima power plant it was a web of pipes. Pipes on the wall, on the ceiling, on the ground. You’d have to walk over them, duck under them—sometimes you’d bump your head on them. It was like a maze of pipes inside.”

Onda believes it’s not very difficult to explain what happened at Unit 1 and perhaps the other reactors as well. “The pipes, which regulate the heat of the reactor and carry coolant, are the veins and arteries of a nuclear power plant; the core is the heart. If the pipes burst, vital components don’t reach the heart and thus you have a heart attack, in nuclear terms: meltdown. In simpler terms, you can’t cool a reactor core if the pipes carrying the coolant and regulating the heat rupture—it doesn’t get to the core.”

Tooru Hasuike, a TEPCO employee from 1977 until 2009 andformer general safety manager of the Fukushima plant, also notes: “The emergency plans for a nuclear disaster at the Fukushima plant had no mention of using sea-water to cool the core. To pump seawater into the core is to destroy the reactor. The only reason you’d do that is no other water or coolant was available.”

Problems with the fractured, deteriorating, poorly repaired pipes and the cooling system had been pointed out for years. In 2002, whistle-blower allegations that TEPCO had deliberately falsified safety records came to light and the company was forced to shut down all of its reactors and inspect them, including the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant. Kei Sugaoka, a GE on-site inspector first notified Japan’s nuclear watch dog, Nuclear Industrial Safey Agency (NISA) in June of 2000. Not only did the government of Japan take more than two years to address the problem and collude on covering it up, they gave the name of the whistleblower to TEPCO.

In September of 2002, TEPCO admitted to covering up data concerning cracks in critical circulation pipes in addition to previously revealed falsifications. In their analysis of the cover-up, The Citizen’s Nuclear Information Center writes: “The records that were covered up had to do with cracks in parts of the reactor known as recirculation pipes. These pipes are there to siphon off heat from the reactor. If these pipes were to fracture, it would result in a serious accident in which coolant leaks out. From the perspective of safety, these are highly important pieces of equipment. Cracks were found in the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant, reactor one, reactor two, reactor three, reactor four, reactor five.” The cracks in the pipes were not due to earthquake damage; they came from the simple wear and tear of long-term usage.

On March 2, nine days before the meltdown, the Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) gave TEPCO a warning on its failure to inspect critical pieces of equipment at the plant, which included the recirculation pumps. TEPCO was ordered to make the inspections, perform repairs if needed and give a report to the NISA on June 2. The report is not confirmed to have been filed as of this time.

The problems were not only with the piping. Gas tanks at the site also exploded after the earthquake. The outside of the reactor building suffered structural damage. There was some chaos. There was no one really qualified to assess the radioactive leakage because, as the Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency admits, after the accident all the on-site inspectors fled the site. And the quake and tsunami broke most of the monitoring equipment so there was little information available on radiation afterwards.

Before the dawn on March 12, the water levels at the reactor began to plummet and the radiation began rising. Meltdown was taking place. The TEPCO Press release issued on March 12 just past 4am stated, “the pressure within the containment vessel is high but stable.” There was a note buried in the release that many people missed. “The emergency water circulation system was cooling the steam within the core; it has ceased to function.”

According to The Chunichi Shinbun and other sources, a few hours after the earthquake extremely high levels of radiation were being measured within the reactor one building. The levels were so high that if you spent a full day exposed to them it would be fatal. The water levels of the reactor were already sinking.After the Japanese government forced TEPCO to release hundreds of pages of documents relating to the accident in May, Bloomberg reported on May 19 that a radiation alarm went off 1.5 kilometers from the number one reactor on March 11 at 3:29 p.m., minutes before the tsunami reached the plant. TEPCO would not deny the possibility that there was significant radiation leakage before the power went out. They did assert that the alarm might have simply malfunctioned.

On March 11, at 9:51 p.m., under the CEO's orders, the inside of the reactor building was declared a no-entry zone. Around 11 p.m., radiation levels for the inside of the turbine building, which was next door to the reactor, reached hourly levels of 0.5 to 1.2 mSv. The meltdown was already underway.

Oddly enough, while TEPCO later insisted that the cause of the meltdown was the tsunami knocking out emergency power systems, at the 7:47 p.m. TEPCO press conference the same day, the spokesman in response to questions from the press about the cooling systems stated that the emergency water circulation equipment and reactor core isolation time cooling systems would work even without electricity.

Sometime between 4 and 6 a.m. on March 12, Masao Yoshida, the plant manager decided it was time to pump seawater into the reactor core and notified TEPCO. Seawater was not pumped in until hours after a hydrogen explosion occurred, roughly 8:00 p.m. that day. By then, it was probably already too late.

On May 15, TEPCO went some way toward admitting at least some of these claims in a report called “Reactor Core Status of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station Unit One.” The report said there might have been pre-tsunami damage to key facilities including pipes. “This means that assurances from the industry in Japan and overseas that the reactors were robust is now blown apart,” said Shaun Burnie, an independent nuclear waste consultant. “It raises fundamental questions on all reactors in high seismic risk areas.”

As Burnie points out, TEPCO also admitted massive fuel melt --16 hours after loss of coolant, and 7-8 hours before the explosion in unit 1. “Since they must have known all this - their decision to flood with massive water volumes would guarantee massive additional contamination - including leaks to the ocean.”

No one knows exactly how much damage was done to the plant by the quake, or if this damage alone would account for the meltdown. However, eyewitness testimony and TEPCO’S own data indicates that the damage was significant. All of this despite the fact that shaking experienced at the plant during the quake was within it’s approved design specifications. Says Hasuike: “What really happened at the Fukushima Daiicihi Nuclear Power Plant to cause a meltdown? TEPCO and the government of Japan have provided many explanations. They don’t make sense. The one thing they haven’t provided is the truth. It’s time that they did.” 

Jake Adelstein is an investigative journalist, consultant, and the author of Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter On The Police Beat In Japan. He is also a board member of the  Washington, D.C.-based Polaris Project Japan, which combats human trafficking and the exploitation of women and children in the sex trade. David McNeill writes for The Irish Times, The Independent and other publications. He has taught courses on journalism at Sophia University and is a coordinator of Japan Focus. Stephanie Nakajima contributed to this article.

Photos via Reuters.