Panicked Workers Fled Fukushima Plant in 2011 Despite Orders, Record Shows

Panicked Workers Fled Fukushima Plant in 2011 Despite Orders, Record Shows (New York Times, May 20, 2014):

TOKYO — At the most dire moment of the Fukushima nuclear crisis three years ago, hundreds of panicked employees abandoned the damaged plant despite being ordered to remain on hand for last-ditch efforts to regain control of its runaway reactors, according to a previously undisclosed record of the accident that was reported Tuesday by a major Japanese newspaper.

The newspaper, The Asahi Shimbun, said that the episode was described by Masao Yoshida, the manager of the Fukushima Daiichi plant at the time of the accident, in a series of interviews conducted by government investigators several months after the March 2011 disaster.

The newspaper said it had obtained a copy of a 400-page transcript of the interviews, which had been referred to in government accounts of the accident but had never been released in its entirety.

Such a transcript could represent the only testimony of the accident left by Mr. Yoshida, who died last year of cancer at the age of 58. Mr. Yoshida is widely viewed in Japan as one of the disaster’s few heroes for preventing the crisis from spinning out of control by defying an order to stop pouring seawater on the overheating reactors.

The transcript offers a chilling glimpse of the panic gripping workers on March 15, when the plant appeared to teeter on the brink of catastrophe four days after a huge earthquake and tsunami knocked out vital cooling systems. Mr. Yoshida told investigators that 650 workers and even midlevel managers fled to another nearby nuclear plant, leaving him and 68 other employees behind to try to contain a possible fuel-core meltdown at a reactor whose building had just exploded. That reactor was one of three that were determined to have melted down during the accident.

If true, the account challenges earlier descriptions of the day’s events that portrayed the plant’s operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, or Tepco, as having evacuated all but a small number of highly dedicated workers, who risked their lives to prevent the nuclear crisis from worsening.

The disclosure of the episode three years after the fact is also certain to raise renewed criticism of the government and Tepco for failing even now to fully disclose what happened during the accident, which spewed radiation over a wide section of northern Japan. In its report, The Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s largest newspapers, assailed the government for failing to make all records of the accident public even as it moves to restart Japan’s undamaged nuclear plants, which were idled after the accident for safety fears.

At a regular news conference, the top government spokesman, Yoshihide Suga, the chief cabinet secretary, did not challenge the accuracy of the Asahi report. He said the transcripts of interviews with Mr. Yoshida and others involved in the accident had not been disclosed because they were not intended for the public record, though he did not explain why.

A spokesman for Tepco, Ryo Shimizu, disputed one crucial aspect of the Asahi report, saying that company records showed Mr. Yoshida issued a more vaguely worded order to withdraw to “low radiation areas,” a term that could also include the neighboring plant six miles away. Thus, he said, Tepco did not view the fleeing employees as actually having violated an order.

The Asahi said its transcript was a word-for-word record of more than 29 hours of interviews with Mr. Yoshida by investigators from July to November 2011. It said the transcript had been stored in the prime minister’s office, along with the still largely undisclosed records of 771 other people interviewed by the government.

In the transcript, Mr. Yoshida recounted how he at first feared that the explosion early on the morning of March 15 at the plant’s No. 2 reactor building might have ruptured the reactor’s containment vessel, a dangerous development that would have released huge amounts of radiation into the atmosphere, according to the report. However, radiation measuring devices at the plant showed no spike in readings, leading Mr. Yoshida to conclude that the vessel remained intact.

Still, as a precaution, he said he gave an order at 6:42 a.m. that workers move to areas in the plant that had the lowest radiation levels until he could be sure about the readings. He said he wanted to keep the plant’s 720 workers close so they could immediately return to help in efforts to contain the accident.

“Wait on the grounds of the Daiichi plant in order to immediately return to your stations,” Mr. Yoshida recalled telling workers via an internal conferencing system at the plant, according to the newspaper.

Instead, he said, many employees began commandeering Tepco buses and using their own cars to flee to the other nuclear plant, the newer Fukushima Daini, according to the report. He said that about 90 percent of the plant’s workers left, though some did start returning that afternoon.

The newspaper said Mr. Yoshida told investigators that he was surprised to learn that so many managers had fled, prompting him to contact the other plant to order their immediate return.

“Actually, I never told them to withdraw to 2F,” Mr. Yoshida was quoted as saying, referring to the second nuclear plant. “When I was told they had gone to 2F, it was already too late.”

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.