Tears, hopeful promises of reunion as Tepco workers evacuated Fukushima No. 1

by Shinya Kokubun


This is the 12th 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.

Four days had passed since the Fukushima No. 1 disaster began, but Ikuo Izawa, a Tokyo Electric Power Co. employee assigned to reactors 1 and 2, whose nuclear fuel had melted, had not called his wife until a colleague urged him to do so.

“You should talk with your spouse,” said Mitsuyuki Ono, who had worked together with Izawa at the two reactors’ main control room. They were inside the emergency response office building, awaiting their turn to go back to the control room to monitor the two units.

As there was no other way to contact a person on the outside, Ono asked for the number and called Izawa’s wife by routing an internal PHS call through Tepco’s head office in Tokyo.

Izawa, 52, took the phone and told his wife he was fine. It was a short conversation, but Izawa’s spoke in a choked-up voice.

On March 15, 2011, the time had come for Ono, 51, to leave the plant. Tepco had decided to limit the number of people staying there to the minimum needed to continue dealing with the crisis.

When Ono met Izawa before leaving the office building, he instantly knew that Izawa was planning to stay. Taking Izawa’s hand, Ono said, “Izawa, I will come back. I will, for sure.”

Satoru Hayashizaki, who had a junior position with the reactors 3 and 4 operation team, met Izawa near the entrance of the building. Izawa had previously been in charge of those two reactors’ operations for about a year, on the same team as the 24-year-old Hayashizaki.

Tepco employees who were departing the office building were wearing white protective gear, but Izawa was in the utility’s blue work uniform and was guiding others to facilitate the process of pulling out. When asked by Hayashizaki if he was going to leave, Izawa’s demeanor grew stern.

“I am staying. You should go,” Izawa told him.

Hayashizaki felt there was a chance he would not see Izawa again, but said, “Let’s meet, outside (the plant).” Izawa simply replied, “OK.”

“It’s a promise,” Hayashizaki insisted, but this time Izawa did not even bother to respond.

Shiro Hikita, an equipment restoration team leader, was standing by the center table at the emergency response office, writing on a whiteboard the names of people who were to stay at the No. 1 plant.

Watching the 56-year-old Hikita, medical team member Yumiko Kato thought the evacuation of her and other employees meant that those who remained behind “were going to die.”

To Kato, 37, Hikita was a teacher who imparted his technical knowledge of nuclear plants. Kato squeezed her way through the crowd of people evacuating the office and softly patted his shoulder.

“Please hang in there,” she said. Hikita nodded, his unshaven face reflecting the grueling past four days.

Kato held back her tears, thinking it would be a “rude” gesture to those who were staying behind. Turning to Hikita, she saw a look of sheer determination on his face.

“He looked as if he was prepared to meet his fate,” Kato recalled. “There was a mix of emotions in his expression.”

The emergency response office became quiet as the evacuation proceeded. According to one Tepco employee present, the names of those staying that had been written on the whiteboard resembled grave markers.

There was no doubt that the fuel meltdown was worsening in reactor 2, in addition to the core meltdowns that had already occurred in reactors 1 and 3, as radiation levels at the plant were rising. But workers could do nothing more than maintain seawater injections to cool fuel in the wrecked reactors.

Plant chief Masao Yoshida, 56, drew close to Hikita, his most trusted subordinate, and said in a low voice: “Hey, Hikita. Everyone’s eyes are on you.”

“What are you talking about, ‘Yoshi-yan’?” Hikita asked, using a familiar term for his superior. As he looked into Yoshida’s eyes, he got the message: No matter what happens, don’t lose your cool.

If the two of them panicked, the younger workers would be even more rattled. The two of them had to remain steadfast.

On the first floor of the office building, Kato noticed some employees scrambling to find full-face masks because there were not enough to go around. Kato put on an ordinary mask and got into a colleague’s car. Thinking of Yoshida and Hikita, tears began to flow down her cheeks.

At 6:59 a.m. on March 15, the leader of the evacuation team told Yoshida that he would leave two buses in the parking lot near the office building, since many workers had used their own cars to depart and not all of the buses commandeered from partner companies were required.

The two buses, one belonging to a subcontractor and the other owned by Tepco, would be the last means of transportation for those remaining at the plant.

The evacuation team leader then drove out of the main gate of the complex, where five buses crammed with evacuees were waiting. Hiraku Isogai, a 51-year-old member of the plant’s electrical equipment restoration team, was inside one of the buses, wondering why they had been stuck there for over five minutes without any explanation.

Just then, the evacuation team leader arrived and asked that the radiation level inside the bus be measured. “It’s high,” came the reply.

But there was no longer any place on the No. 1 plant’s premises where radiation levels were low. At 7:02 a.m., the level around the main gate reached 882 microsieverts per hour. With some employees not even wearing full-face masks in the bus, it was imperative that they leave the plant without delay.

“Let’s head to (Tepco’s Fukushima No. 2 nuclear plant),” around 12 km southward, the evacuation team leader told the drivers of the five buses. Of nearly 100 private cars that were used for the evacuation, many already seemed to have headed to the No. 2 plant. Several other cars were still waiting near the buses.

The team leader tried to call Yoshida, the plant chief, to report back to him, but couldn’t get through. A relieved Yoshida learned later that some 650 employees from Fukushima No. 1 had arrived safely at the No. 2 facility that day.

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