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Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012

Book reveals human drama in Fukushima No. 1 crisis


Staff writer

Experts and journalists have written a number of reports, some even running several hundred pages, about the cause of the triple meltdown crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant and the chain of events that followed.

News photo
Behind the scenes: "Shino Fuchi wo Mita Otoko" ("A Man Who Was on the Brink of Death") interviews the people involved in battling the Fukushima nuclear crisis in March 2011 and takes the rare step of using their real names. YOSHIAKI MIURA

But little has come to light about the human drama of how the plant workers who came to be dubbed the "Fukushima 50," fought against incredible odds to avert catastrophic reactor explosions that would have led to the contamination of all eastern Japan.

But now a recently published book sheds light on dozens of those workers, including their real names and numerous quotes, and an account by the plant's heroic operations chief, Masao Yoshida, who has largely avoided giving interviews despite intense public interest in his role in the saga.

Freelance journalist Ryusho Kadota, author of the book "Shi no Fuchi wo Mita Otoko: Yoshida Masao to Fukushima Daiichi Genpatsu no 500 Nichi" ("A Man Who was on the Brink of Death: Masao Yoshida and the Fukushima No. 1 Plant's 500 Days"), managed to interview more than 90 people involved in the containment effort and their family members, Self-Defense Forces personnel and others.

Kadota, an award-winning journalist, writes in the book that he wanted to know how people reacted and felt as they desperately battled the world's worst nuclear crisis since the 1986 Chernobyl accident.

Initially, the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co. tried to play down the magnitude of the crisis. But from the moment Yoshida learned that a monster tsunami had knocked out the emergency diesel generators needed to keep the reactor cores cool, there was only one thing on his mind — that the Fukushima crisis had the potential to be far worse than the Chernobyl disaster in the old Soviet Union.

"If you simply calculate it, you can see (the magnitude of the disaster) would be 10 times more serious than Chernobyl. We kept coping with the situation with that in our mind," Yoshida is quoted in the book as saying.

If any one of the primary containment vessels had exploded, massive amounts of radioactive material would have been released, and all nine of the other reactors at No. 1 and the nearby Fukushima No. 2 plant would have been unapproachable, Yoshida said.

All 10 would have suffered meltdowns, contaminating the environment far more than the Chernobyl accident did, Yoshida said.

"That's why I really appreciate the greatness of our staff who were on the front line," he says.

"There were many times when we thought this was the end. We were in a situation similar to being in the cockpit of an airplane with everything out of order, such as gauges and oil pressure, but the plane must be controlled to land on the ground. I am deeply thankful to those who fought at the scene and put their lives on the line," Yoshida said.

The book, which was released Nov. 25, delves into the backgrounds of many of the workers and the reactions of their families while they were working desperately in the central control room of reactors 1 and 2. Unusual for a book in Japan, most of their real names were used.

In the early stages of the disaster, they entered the reactor buildings numerous times, exposing themselves to the rapidly rising radiation being caused by the melting cores.

Ikuo Izawa, who led the team in the control room, was asked by one of his young staff members why they still needed to be there hours after the complete loss of electricity had left them helpless and in the dark.

"If we withdraw from here, it would mean we are abandoning all of the areas around the power plant," Izawa was quoted as replying.

"I'm asking you to stay. Please," he beseeched his staff in a fading voice, the book says. Except for two trainees granted permission to escape, none abandoned the control room.

Investigation panels set up by the government and the Diet also interviewed many engineers, but only the names of Tepco executives have been released.

Remarks in the book that were provided by relatives of the workers include those from the family of one of two engineers who were killed by the tsunami, and describe how they tried desperately to find out what happened to him.

The two workers had gone to check reactor 4 after the first quake occurred. They died after being caught by the tsunami in the turbine building.



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