The hero who averted nuclear catastrophe

The tsunami that hit Japan six years ago almost caused another Chernobyl in Fukushima. Journalist Rob Gilhooly was there and has written a book about the aftermath

A Tokyo Electric Power Coompany employee walks past storage tanks for contaminated water at the company’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Okuma, Fukushima, Japan, on February 23rd. Photograph: AFP / Pool / Tomohiro Ohsumi

A Tokyo Electric Power Coompany employee walks past storage tanks for contaminated water at the company’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Okuma, Fukushima, Japan, on February 23rd. Photograph: AFP / Pool / Tomohiro Ohsumi

 

More than six years have passed since the earthquake and tsunami struck the Tohoku region of northern Japan, yet memories of that time still haunt me.

It’s difficult to forget some of the heart-wrenching scenes, such as the man slumped over the foundations of a destroyed home in Ishinomaki, and that fleeting, fanciful thought that at any moment he might emerge from a TV- and green tea-induced slumber.

Likewise the teenaged boy in Rikuzentakata, shovel in hand, searching among the rubble for his brother, or the pathos of a scene where a military official returned a slipper to the foot of a man as his limp, lifeless body was unloaded from a truck and transported to a makeshift morgue inside a high school gym.

I hadn’t sufficiently prepared myself for such sights, or indeed the scale of devastation that the disasters had wrought on coastal Tohoku when I headed up there from Tokyo on the morning of March 12th with two journalist friends.

Nor for that matter, had I given much thought to a third, more insidious danger that soon began to unfold.

As we headed north toward the scene of the disaster, I passed through territory I knew well as I had spent the first few years of my Japan life there back in the early 1990s. A literal translation of its name would be “Lucky Island”, but little did I know that Fukushima was about to become a place synonymous with nuclear catastrophe.

Speeding along almost entirely alone for large stretches of normally busy highway, I called an old friend from my days there. As he relayed the welcome news that he and his young family were safe, his voice took an unusually alarmed tone. The local news was reporting that there had been an explosion at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station about 50 miles away from where we were presently driving.

Realising the potentially wide-reaching consequences, we turned east toward Iwaki, a city located about 20 miles south of the plant. The last thing my friend said was the thing I remember most clearly to this day: “Fukushima’s finished. We’re the new Chernobyl.”

More explosions followed and tens of thousands of residents living near the plant were evacuated as radioactive materials fell on the fields and mountains that surrounded their homes. Despite assurances by the plant’s operator TEPCO that everything was under control, it quickly became apparent that it wasn’t and my old friend was right: Fukushima had quickly become a byword for nuclear catastrophe – the new Chernobyl.

Over the weeks, months and years that followed, I continued to visit the devastated area in an attempt to uncover the story of the nuclear disaster from the standpoint of those who had battled away to fight it and those who had been forced to flee from it.

This culminated in the book Yoshida’s Dilemma: One Man’s Struggle to Avert Nuclear Catastrophe. Fukushima – March 2011, which was released by inknbeans Press last month, the sixth anniversary of the disasters.

The book is named after Masao Yoshida, the superintendent of the plant and one of the so-called “Fukushima 50” – the skeleton team of workers who stayed behind and braved multiple explosions and meltdowns in an attempt to bring the plant back under control.

Yoshida, who retired from the plant in late 2012 after being diagnosed with oesophageal cancer, has widely been afforded hero status for his leading role in averting a far more devastating catastrophe. Most famously, he defied official orders to stop using seawater to cool the melting reactors, one of many dilemmas he faced throughout the lengthy ordeal.

In addition to speaking with Yoshida, plant officials and workers for the book, many of them off the record or on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, I also interviewed Naoto Kan, Japan’s prime minister at the time, who some believe played an equally important hand when he put a stop to an alleged worker pullout from the plant as it spiralled out of control. Such a move, he believed, would trigger an even wider nuclear catastrophe that would require an evacuation zone stretching as far as Tokyo, impacting a total of 50 million people.

With time, the plant was brought under control, but tens of thousands of evacuated residents were displaced, and indeed remain so today, unable or unwilling to return.

The most significant reason is that much of that zone remains off limits, while small pockets have been reopened. Another is the uncertain health risks, exacerbated by a lack of trust in a government that issued a ruling just days after the nuclear crisis started that effectively increased the official safe level of radiation exposure for residents by a factor of 20.

Indeed, confusion reigns with regards to the impact of the accident on health. Some researchers, such as Geraldine Thomas, a cancer specialist at London University, insist that the radiation levels seen at Fukushima are too low to bring about the high numbers of thyroid and other cancers that were among the more prominent illnesses to come to light in the decades after Chernobyl.

Others, such as Hisako Sakiyama, a former senor researcher at Japan’s National Institute of Radiological Sciences, disagree, saying sufficient data has been gathered to show even lower radiation doses can cause sufficient DNA damage to bring about cancer and other illnesses.

Away from the laboratory, however, about 200 thyroid cancer cases have already been detected among the Fukushima residents aged 18 and under at the time of the accident, though experts say that a stigma attached to radiation-induced cancer, which harks back to the A-bomb “hibakusha” survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, means the figure is almost certainly higher.

Other illnesses are also starting to come to light.

On February 2nd, a former plant worker took utility TEPCO to court after he was diagnosed with leukemia. His illness had already been recognised by Japan’s health and labour ministry as being work-related, though a TEPCO spokesman flatly denied the possibility of a connection between the cancer and radiation exposure at the plant.

This case seemed to make for a poignant ending to Yoshida’s Dilemma. Yoshida and a large cast of workers and fire-fighters battled courageously to prevent a potentially world-changing disaster. Yet, for tens of thousands of people affected by the nuclear accident, that battle continues.

Yoshida’s Dilemma is a tribute to the former, and a reminder of the plight of the latter, who remain in limbo as politicians in Japan’s capital turn their attention to what they see as more pressing issues, such as the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

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