This is the 11th 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.
Fearing a massive discharge of radiation on March 15, 2011, Fukushima No. 1 plant chief Masao Yoshida told Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s head office in Tokyo that he had to consider evacuating the majority of on-site employees.
This followed a report at 6:14 a.m. earlier in the day that pressure inside the reactor 2 suppression chamber had dropped to zero, suggesting the containment vessel had been damaged. Yet Tepco officials in Tokyo, about 220 km from the stricken plant, did not share Yoshida’s sense of urgency, with one official saying it could just have been a pressure gauge glitch.
Yoshida responded furiously.
“It doesn’t make sense for us to remain (at Fukushima No. 1) when the radiation level rises!” he shouted as he hastily donned a white safety helmet.
Through the teleconference system set up by Tepco to send real-time footage of the plant’s emergency response office to the utility’s Tokyo headquarters, Yoshida, 56, strove to convey that the plant was in such a critical state that anything could happen at that point.
All of the operators overseeing reactors 1 through 6 in the main control rooms at Fukushima No. 1 were told to evacuate to the earthquake-resistant building where Yoshida was sheltering. Four days earlier, the magnitude-9.0 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami had sent units 1, 2 and 3 into core meltdowns, and the fear of powerful aftershocks was hanging over the plant.
Yoshida checked that the wind direction was from the northwest, meaning the Fukushima No. 2 nuclear plant, also operated by Tepco and located about 12 km south of the No. 1 complex, would be safe enough to take refuge in, as it had escaped major damage from the natural disasters.
“Search for a place where the radiation level is low. If there is no such location, head to the No. 2 plant. The direction of the wind is OK,” Yoshida told the team leader arranging the evacuation of the No. 1 plant.
The team leader proposed an area just outside the destroyed plant’s main entrance, and Yoshida agreed. At 6:27 a.m. on March 15, the team leader issued instructions to employees at the No. 1 plant to evacuate immediately.
“The final destination is Fukushima No. 2. Buses are parked near the quake-resistant building. I want as many people as possible to get on the buses. We will first measure the radiation level outside the main entrance. If we cannot stay there, we will head to the No. 2 plant,” the team leader said.
He also phoned the Fukushima No. 2 complex to report that employees from the No. 1 site would be heading there.
At 6:33 a.m., Yoshida ordered the leaders of various teams at his emergency response headquarters to decide which workers would have to stay behind. But what Yoshida said about 10 minutes later, which was captured by the teleconference system, was puzzling.
“Evacuate to an area within the (No. 1) plant’s premises where the radiation level is low,” he said, but “if (Tepco) headquarters confirms there is no problem, I want you to come back.”
The remarks differed from what Yoshida and the evacuation team leader had agreed upon the previous night — that the destination for withdrawal was Fukushima No. 2. Further, there was no area within the No. 1 plant where plant workers could stay for long because of alarming radiation levels due to the three wrecked reactors.
Yoshida’s subordinates assumed he might have reasons for issuing such an instruction. About 40 minutes earlier, the teleconference system had relayed footage showing then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan, 64, screaming at senior Tepco executives in Tokyo that they “would not be able to escape” the disaster even if the utility tried to withdraw all of its employees at the No. 1 plant.
By ordering employees to remain at Fukushima No. 1, Yoshida may have been trying to protect his subordinates from being accused of running away, even though he was well aware that the option of evacuating was not realistic.
“Yoshida is the kind of person who would act like that,” one of his subordinates at the plant’s emergency response office said later, and many others echoed his words.
Around the same time on March 15, members of the plant’s two equipment restoration teams were in that office, discussing who should evacuate and who would remain on-site.
There were no clear guidelines, but Takeyuki Inagaki and Shiro Hikita, the leaders of those teams, had decided that younger employees should leave the site.
Of the team members, some volunteered to stay, while one wanted to evacuate. But the 56-year-old Hikita, who had much experience with the mechanics of the reactors, immediately rejected that member’s request. Inagaki, 47, also had input.
“We are the ones who have created this situation,” Hikita said. “We have to clean up the mess, right?”
Hiraku Isogai, who was in charge of electrical equipment recovery, was unable to make up his mind. The mood among his team was bleak because power cable-laying work was being hampered by hydrogen explosions that had ripped through the structures housing reactors 1 and 3.
“I thought I had done what I could. In the end, my kid’s face crossed my mind. I thought I could not die just yet, although I felt guilty,” Isogai, 51, recalled.
The last person Isogai saw before leaving the control office was Yoshida, who had been Isogai’s boss about 15 years earlier when he belonged to the maintenance section of Fukushima No. 1.