The former chief of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant told how he and his workers on site felt they would die in their bunker when they heard the explosion. And yet no one considered abandoning the crippled plant amid the crisis.
Masao Yoshida, 57, broke a 17-month silence with a 30-minute video shown Saturday at a symposium in the city of Fukushima. The message is the story of the struggle to contain the stricken plant amid soaring radiation levels in March 2011 and prevent an even greater tragedy.
“It was like hell,” he said in the video message according to the Asahi Shimbun newspaper. “The only thing [on my mind] was how to stabilize the power station.”
Yoshida said he feared they would die as debris from one of three explosions clattered on to the roof of their quake-proof concrete bunker. “At the time we didn’t know they were hydrogen explosions,” The Australian newspaper quoted him as saying. “When that first explosion occurred, I really felt we might die.”
When the plant’s cooling system failed, temperatures around the reactor’s active zone kept rising. This led to a meltdown of the radioactive fuel followed by the blasts in outer containers. The latter were caused by the ignition of hydrogen that was released from the water surrounding the containment vessels of the reactors. The explosions, however, did not destroy any of the containment vessels around the nuclear fuel.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who was in office at the time of the disaster, said the management of the Tokyo Electric Power Co., or TEPCO, informed him it was preparing to abandon the plant.
Masao Yoshida did not comment on whether his seniors had considered evacuating the workers, but he did point out that pulling out was never an option for him.
“I never said to headquarters anything about pulling people out – it never occurred to me,” he said. “Our main concern was to find a way to stabilize the plant. There was no way we were going to leave the plant. There was no way we were going to withdraw people who were on the ground.”
Many say Yoshida’s decision prevented an even greater disaster. In Japan, many view the former manager of the plant as a hero for refusing orders from his seniors to cease pumping the seawater into one of the stricken reactors.
The former chief said the efforts of the workers who remained on site, “although they had reached their physical limits due to lack of sleep and food,” have helped the plant recover to its current state.
“Reactors five and six would have also melted down without people staying on site,” he explained. “The most important task [now] is to stabilize the plant further.”
Masao Yoshida stepped down in November last year after being diagnosed with esophageal cancer. His former employer, TEPCO, said it is unlikely his illness emerged as a result of the exposure to radiation.
Fukushima Daiichi (No. 1) nuclear power plant was severely damaged during a devastating tsunami triggered by the so-called Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011. Three of the plant’s reactors suffered meltdowns of their fuel rods, releasing potentially-fatal doses of radiation that exceeded the normal levels by a factor of thousands.
In terms of the amount of radiation released into the atmosphere, the Fukushima accident is second only to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the Soviet Ukraine. Both countries are still dealing with the aftermath of these major accidents, with up to 100,000 people having abandoned their homes in Japan.