Paths cross in the Pacific: Japan beckons Springs Fab, sustains Sushi Den

By Bart Taylor | Oct 08, 2013

On paper, they couldn’t be more disparate companies. Springs Fabrication, in Colorado Springs, is a global manufacturer of steel containers and fabricated metal products. Sushi Den is Denver’s iconic Japanese restaurant, making food-art from the most pristine of raw materials - fish.

Both are profiled in this issue of CompanyWeek, surprising to some maybe, but for me a great example of how making and manufacturing span a fascinating cross-section of industry segments.

For a moment in 2011 their paths crossed, the way they often do for companies with global operations and long supply-chains. But the circumstances were unique.

Unknown to many, Springs Fab was thrust into the middle of the earthquake crisis in Japan two years ago, when the company was hired to design and manufacture huge steel containers to capture the radioactive water used to cool the nuclear fire in the reactor at Fukushima.

I’d just watched a Frontline documentary on the Fukushima disaster and was surprised by how close Japan came to a cataclysm that might have surpassed Chernobyl. The accidents were similar: at Fukushima, an explosion tore apart the reactor and left the core fully exposed, emitting lethal amounts of radiation and in danger of secondary explosions that might have poisoned large swaths of the Japanese mainland. Much like Chernobyl, the bravery of pilots and firefighters able to get water onto the fire prevented catastrophe.

I knew that Springs Fab had built the steel vessels used to hold and filter the water pumped out of the reactor. They’d been flown on huge Russian-made Antonov transport planes to Japan. I hoped Tom Neppl, Spring Fab’s CEO, would tell me the story. (Mike Dano also writes about it here.) He did.

“I was sitting in my office on a Saturday, following up on some bids, when a partner of ours called, explained what was going on, and asked if we’d get into the project”, Neppl recounted. “We were actually in a bit of a lull, but had experience with radioactive materials. We assessed the risk, decided it was worth it and jumped in.”

Neppl’s an unassuming guy and downplays what unfolded, but the decision placed Springs Fab squarely into an international drama, involving TEPCO, the Tokyo Electric Power Company that managed Fukushima, the Japanese government, and among others French nuclear officials who viewed Springs Fab as interlopers. For weeks, TEPCO officials were onsite at Springs Fab’s facility, meticulously following progress.

As it became clear Neppl’s company was emerging as the go-to supplier, a senior Japanese government official landed in his office to deliver an urgent request.

“Dr. Suzuki brought me a gift, sat in the chair you’re sitting, and asked if we could reduce our production schedule from three or four weeks to one. How can you say no? I got a yellow-pad out and we redesigned the schedule right there. We met the deadline."

He won’t take credit but what happened is now part of the historical record: Springs Fab became one of the project's most innovative and reliable firms. The steel modules, containers and systems designed and manufactured in Colorado Springs were among the most trusted by Japanese energy and government officials where the degree of difficulty took its toll on other solutions.

Fukushima continues to be a difficult proposition for officials. Last week we read of more leaks from the site.

But Neppl’s containers captured water that would otherwise have run off into the surrounding terrain - and oceans.

Japan's a key cog in Sushi Den's supply chain, but the restaurant wasn't impacted by the accident. The Kizaki brothers source their fish "...where they grew up", in southern Japan opposite the northeastern location of Fukushima (read Jeff Rundles profile). It's also not clear what impact the accident did, or will, have.

But thirty percent of the thousands of pounds of fish Sushi Den flies into Denver every week is from Japan. No doubt they care deeply about the entire fishery. At least for a brief moment in 2011, the efforts of one Colorado company meant a lot to another, in operations underway thousands of miles away.

Improbable. Fascinating. Important. Now you know.