Life among the Fukushima 50: ‘Don’t call me a hero'
Two years after the triple meltdown at the Daiichi Nuclear power plant, one of the men who stayed at their posts recalls their efforts to prevent a catastrophe of epic proportions
Fukushima 50: Atsufima Yoshizawa. Photograph: Androniki Christodoulou
Danger zone: workers wait to enter the crippled plant in 2011. Photograph: David Guttenfelder/AFP/Getty Images
It was, recalls Atsufumi Yoshizawa, a suicide mission, volunteering to return to a radioactive nuclear power plant on the verge of tipping out of control. As he said goodbye to his colleagues they saluted him, like soldiers in battle. The wartime analogies were hard to avoid: in the international media, he was a kamikaze, a samurai or simply one of the heroic Fukushima 50. The descriptions still embarrass him.
“I’m not a hero,” he says. “I was just trying to do my job.
A stoic, soft-spoken man dressed in the blue utility suit of his embattled employer, Tokyo Electric Power Co, or Tepco, Yoshizawa still finds it hard to dredge up memories of fighting to stop catastrophe at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.
Two years later debate still rages about responsibility for the planet’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, and its impact. Fish caught near the plant this month were more than 5,000 times over safe radiation limits, according to NHK, Japan’s state broadcaster.
A report this week by the World Health Organisation says that female infants affected by the worst of the fallout have a 70 per cent higher risk of developing thyroid cancer but concludes that overall risks for the rest of the population are low.
More than 160,000 people have been displaced from their homes near the plant, perhaps permanently, and are fighting for proper compensation. Stress, divorce and suicides plague the evacuees.
Yoshizawa feels “deep responsibility” for the crisis his company triggered. His eyes brim with tears at points in his story, which begins with the magnitude-9 underwater quake, 150km from the plant, on March 11th, 2011.
“It was so strong I fell on my hands and knees,” says the 54-year-old engineer. “There was no place to hide.”
The quake’s shock waves ripped pipes from walls, bounced parked cars like toys and buckled roads at the 350-hectare plant. Initially, Yoshizawa believed the Daiichi’s defensive engineering had worked.
The instant the tremors struck, control rods were automatically inserted into the plant’s three working reactors to shut down nuclear fission, a process known as scram. But the shaking had cut power from the main electricity grid, probably damaging the cooling system to reactor 1, and a destructive tsunami more than twice as high as the plant’s defences was just 49 minutes away.
Yoshizawa was in charge of reactors 5 and 6, which were shut down for maintenance. He ran to the plant’s seismic isolation building and took his post beside Masao Yoshida, the plant manager, trying to assess the damage.
In the windowless bunker, they couldn’t see the tsunami that hit the complex. Waves up to 15m high washed over the 5.7m seawall. Water flooded the basements of the turbine buildings, on the ocean side of the reactors, shorting electric switching units and disabling 12 of the 13 emergency generators and then backup batteries, the last line of defence.
Meltdown had begun
There was no power to pump water to the nuclear core and carry off the heat, or even measure radiation. The engineers had lost control over the complex – meltdown had begun.