This is the 13th in a series on the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe based on the accounts of people who struggled to contain the crisis in its early stages. Job titles and ages are as of March 2011.
At least 71 Tokyo Electric Power Co. employees remained at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant in the early hours of March 15, 2011, accepting the risks in a bid to bring reactors 1 and 3 reactors under control.
After Tepco initially announced that around 50 employees would remain on-site, they were hailed by foreign media as the “Fukushima 50,” a term quickly picked up by Japanese media outlets. Others workers not directly involved in the recovery efforts evacuated the No. 1 plant, which suffered three core meltdowns.
Having dispatched the last evacuees from the emergency response office building, Toshiyuki Hayashida, a 43-year-old member of the plant’s safety control team, started composing an email to his wife. Fearing he would not survive the escalating crisis, and at a loss for words, he sent her just a single sentence: “Please take care of everything for me.”
He then spoke by radio with two of his co-workers measuring radioactivity near the complex’s main gate. “If the radiation level soars, run for your lives,” Hayashida said, hoping they at least might survive.
Meanwhile, plant chief Masao Yoshida was slowly walking around the office as if trying to imprint the face of each person present on his mind.
Yoshida, 56, stopped in front of Tomoyuki Arai of Tepco’s firefighting unit and placed his hand on his head. Based on Yoshida’s expression, Arai, 42, thought the plant head was apologizing for Arai having to stay behind.
But the tense atmosphere softened and Yoshida, after surveying the office, said: “The room looks sparse. Guys, do whatever you want.”
He appeared to have recovered from his earlier distress, after reactors 1 and 3 had been knocked out by the 3/11 quake-tsunami disaster and with unit 2 on the brink of catastrophe, and told his colleagues he felt hungry. Up to that point, the daily rations were a small pack of crackers per worker and a 2-liter bottle of water for two people to share because emergency supplies were running short.
“We have snacks over here,” Susumu Kunito, a plant operation team member known for his hearty appetite, told Yoshida, showing him a box of food they’d received from workers who had traveled to the No. 1 plant to assist. Kunito, 48, started passing the box around.
Hayashida, of the safety control team, meanwhile, grabbed canned beef and fruits from the emergency supply store and took them to the emergency control room. As he handed them out, he later recalled, he thought to himself, “This is going to be my last meal.”
“Oh, I like this,” Yoshida said, his spirits improving. Ikuo Izawa, who headed the reactors 1 and 2 operation team and had been on duty when the March 11, 2011, quake and tsunami struck, remembers the two of them even managing to crack a smile at such an impossible time.
Hayashida returned to his seat, grabbed a spoonful of canned beef, and realized he had lost his sense of taste.
At 9 a.m. on March 15, the emergency response headquarters received notification that the radiation level at the plant’s main gate had reached a terrifying 11,930 microsieverts per hour, the highest reading measured outdoors on the No. 1 complex since the start of the nuclear crisis four days earlier.
But workers had to continue refueling fire trucks that were dumping seawater into the destroyed reactors and to keep monitoring the conditions of the other three units. Six members from the two equipment restoration teams had stayed on, including their leaders, Takeyuki Inagaki, 47, and Shiro Hikita, 56.
“We didn’t mind dying. I felt we just could not back down,” Inagaki later said, believing the six members would be sufficient to keep the refueling operation going.
That mission saw Inagaki venture outdoors at the No. 1 plant for the first time since the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami struck. But as he and a colleague drove down the slope west of reactors 2 and 3, they saw flames and black smoke coming from the fourth floor of the reactor 4 building.
Inagaki turned pale.
A total of 1,535 fuel rod assemblies were inside the spent fuel pool of unit 4, whose roof and walls had been shattered by a hydrogen explosion at 6:14 a.m. If the pool dried up, the nuclear fuel would be exposed and start to release even more radioactive materials into the atmosphere.
Inagaki immediately reported the blaze to Yoshida, who in turn spoke with Tepco’s headquarters in Tokyo.
“A fire has broken out at reactor 4. (We) can’t do anything. Please ask the Self-Defense Forces or U.S. military for help,” Yoshida pleaded with Tepco officials via a teleconference system at 9:39 a.m.
Due to the frantic seawater injection at the wrecked reactors, the plant had no spare fire truck or additional water source to extinguish the blaze, and high radiation levels were also measured around the unit 4 building.
“Is this going to be my graveyard?” Arai thought to himself.
When Yoshida ordered the evacuation of about 650 Tepco employees early that morning, he had been expecting a massive discharge of radiation from reactor 2, fearing its containment vessel could crack at any moment — the utter point of no return.
But the fire trucks managed to continuously douse reactor 2 with seawater and the radiation level near the plant’s main gate started to gradually fall, after peaking around 9 a.m.
“The situation is not getting that much worse,” Yoshida told Kunito of the plant operation team, who agreed. Inagaki, the equipment restoration team chief, who joined the conversation, said radiation levels remained high but it was still possible to work around the reactor buildings.
“However, we will quickly run out of people under this amount of radiation” because they will quickly reach their maximum exposure limit, Yoshida said.
Still, the three were starting to feel they might have escaped the very worst-case scenario, a cracked containment vessel that would expose nuclear fuel to the external environment. If workers returned to the No. 1 plant, they thought, the situation could be prevented from escalating further.
“It’s one option,” Yoshida murmured as he debated the issue. Then he ordered: “Call up people we need!”
Kunito and Hikita, the other equipment team head, joined colleagues in starting to recall workers who had evacuated to Tepco’s Fukushima No. 2 nuclear plant, about 12 km to the south.
Hiraku Isogai, a 51-year-old member of the electricity equipment restoration team at Fukushima No. 1, was one of those to receive a call.
“We are somehow OK. Would you come back?” a co-worker at the No. 1 plant asked. Without hesitation, Isogai said he would.
Isogai asked other co-workers in charge of electricity equipment whether they would go with him. Some refused, after experiencing the hydrogen explosions at the site, but five or six agreed to return.
Later that morning, workers began to return to the Fukushima No. 1 plant.