How a pregnant Fukushima plant official remained at her station as the disaster unfolded

by Yukiko Maeda


This is the 15th 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.

For Airi Ide, leaving the Fukushima No. 1 power plant in the midst of the nuclear crisis was the hardest thing to do. She desperately wanted to continue helping her colleagues bring the reactors under control.

The problem was, her condition would not let her.

Ide, 28, was four months pregnant and an operator at the No. 5 and 6 reactors.

She was there when the earthquake and tsunami hit the plant on March 11, 2011, and she was there in the hours that followed, as radiation levels soared.

She was Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s first female reactor operator. Moreover, she had an emotional attachment to the two reactors because her father had been involved in their construction.

“At first I wanted to be a doctor,” said Ide, a native of Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture. But she changed her mind after she had a chance once to tour a reactor control room.

The instruments and control panel fascinated her, but what particularly grabbed her attention were the photos of reactor operators hanging on the wall. Not one was a woman.

Ide’s mind was made up. In July 2009, she became an operator on the No. 5 and 6 reactors. “I was so happy about the idea that reactors my father built were being run by his daughter,” she recalled.

The two reactors, located some distance from the No. 1 and 4 units, were undergoing regular checkups and were therefore powered down when the disaster struck in 2011. The No. 5 unit lost power, while one emergency diesel generator for the No. 6 reactor survived the tsunami because it was located above ground. Other generators were all in the basement and were swamped.

In the main control room for the No. 5 and 6 reactors, the lights on the No. 5 unit side went out.

“Are you all right?” her colleagues asked, clearly worried about Ide’s health.

Recalling that moment, Ide said, “I thought of my baby and thought I should evacuate. But then I felt I must stay in the control room until the end. This is what it is to be an operator.”

At 4 a.m. on March 12, she was taking a nap in a room nearby when a colleague roused her and told her that radiation levels were rising around the No. 1 and 2 reactors, advising her to put on a full-face mask.

Realizing it would be a long battle, she and other operators had decided to take turns to rest. Sleep, however, was all but impossible because aftershocks from the massive quake were still shaking the complex.

“I had not heard about the state of the No. 1 and 2 reactors in detail, but I felt they were in a dangerous condition,” Ide recalled.

The radiation level was still low inside the No. 5 and 6 unit buildings, but upon returning to the main control room she put on a mask just in case.

Power had to be supplied to the No. 5 reactor as quickly as possible by diverting electricity from the No. 6 reactor’s emergency diesel generator. The pressure inside the No. 5 reactor was high because it had been in the middle of a pressure test when it lost power.

Elsewhere, officials at Tepco’s emergency response office were too busy dealing with the crisis to notice that a pregnant woman was still in the control room. When they eventually realized, they panicked.

“Ide is pregnant. Get her out of there immediately!” ordered Susumu Kunito, 48, a Tepco official overseeing the No. 5 and 6 reactors from the emergency response office.

At the time, the No. 1 reactor was in meltdown, pushing the levels of radiation higher.

Nuclear power plant workers are usually allowed a radiation exposure of up to 100 millisieverts for 5 years. But for a pregnant woman, the dose is limited to 2 millisieverts on the surface of the abdomen.

The control room commander ordered Ide to head to the emergency response office building. She did not want to go, but she could not disobey her superior’s order. Ide walked up to each of her younger colleagues in turn and apologized for having to leave them behind.

Once she left the building and saw the car that had come to pick her up, tears welled up. There was a mixture of sadness, frustration and guilt in her heart as she repeatedly said to herself, “I’m sorry.”

She kept on crying in the car. She could not shake off the thought that she would not be around to complete the work of protecting the No. 5 and 6 reactors that her father had helped to build.

While the No. 1 to 4 units suffered serious problems, the No. 5 and 6 reactors eventually achieved cold shutdowns thanks to the surviving emergency diesel generator.

Ide said she had “no regrets” as to the way she faced up to the crisis. “Be it a terrorist attack or nuclear accident, I was duty bound to the plant. I said sorry to the baby inside me for being a mom like this.”

In late April, experts checked her internal and external exposure and measured it at 0.37 millisieverts, well below the 1 millisievert annual limit recommended for the general public.

She was still worried. After all, she had stayed inside the plant until the morning of March 12. To settle her fears she visited a gynecologist in Iwaki in May.

And her trauma was compounded by the fact that for a while Ide had lived as an evacuee, just like tens of thousands of other local residents. With limited supplies of water and food, she was not sure whether her baby had got the nutrients it needed.

But the doctor assured her, “It’s all right for you to give birth” and said there was “absolutely no problem” with her health, given the amount of radiation to which she had been exposed.

The doctor’s words instantly eased her fears. On Sept. 11, she delivered a healthy baby boy weighing 3.75 kg.

“So many things had happened before he was born, so I was so relieved that he was born safely,” she said.

When her maternity leave expired in October 2012 she returned to work at Tepco’s Fukushima No. 2 nuclear power plant. She has yet to set foot again in the No. 1 plant, where work is still under way to stabilize it.

“I would like to return to Fukushima No. 1 plant some day and do whatever I can to help the decommissioning,” she said, expressing a sense of duty as an employee of the company at the center of one of the world’s worst nuclear crises.

Tepco decided in December 2013 to decommission the No. 5 and 6 reactors, even though the reactors were undamaged. There are still 130,000 people living in temporary accommodation, either as migrants or mandatory evacuees, because of the contamination.

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