"We did it. We did it for everyone."(2:54) A helicopter pilot describes his dangerous Fukushima Daiichi mission last March.

One Pilot’s Dangerous Mission to Stop Fukushima’s Nuclear Meltdown

by
Watch a preview of our upcoming film Inside Japan’s Nuclear Meltdown, a rare inside look at what happened at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in the hours and days after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. It airs tomorrow night; check your local listings here.

You may have seen it on TV or online — a grainy video shot from 20 miles away. The helicopter, no bigger than a dot against the sky, releasing what resembled an exhale of breath on a cold day. In fact, it was 2,000 gallons of water falling 300 feet against the wind.

It was the seventh day of the unfolding disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant last March.

The mission, ordered by then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan, was a last-ditch effort to prevent yet another disaster. After several hydrogen explosions, pools of radioactive spent fuel were exposed to the atmosphere. If the pools boiled dry they could catch fire — and the resulting contamination could be even worse than a reactor meltdown.

The mission was difficult and risky. If the helicopter flew higher than 300 feet, it would risk missing its target. If it flew below 300 feet, it could expose the pilots to dangerous levels of radiation. Soviet pilots who’d performed a similar mission during the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986 subsequently died of cancer.

For protection, the helicopter was bolted with Tungsten plates to protect the pilots, who wore protective gear, from gamma rays.

Yoshiyuki Yamaoka was the Self-Defense Force [SDF] co-pilot on that first mission, one of the men zooming across the sky in the tiny dot. In the excerpt above from our film Inside Japan’s Nuclear Meltdown above, Yamaoka describes what happened: an emotional pre-flight call with his wife; his reaction to seeing the mangled plant from the sky; and his feelings of victory post-flight:

“We could see the steam, so I knew it had gone in. We did it. We did it. We did it for everyone. That’s how I felt,” he told FRONTLINE.

While some subsequent water drop attempts failed because of the stiff winds, this moment was seen as a turning point in the week-long crisis by the Japanese government.

“The SDF flying on the 16th and dropping water on the 17th was a turnaround,” Naoko Kan told FRONTLINE. “Until then, we were pushed and pushed by an invisible enemy. … But on the 15th, we created the [joint-response] headquarters [with TEPCO], and from the 16th we started to put water in. From there, finally the system was in order. The turnaround began.”

Editors’ Note: This program and clip contain video recorded during the disaster, combined with footage filmed later.

blog comments powered by Disqus

In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS
Frontline Journalism Fund

Supporting Investigative Reporting

Funding for FRONTLINE is provided through the support of PBS viewers and by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Major funding for FRONTLINE is provided by The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Additional funding is provided by the Park Foundation, the Wyncote Foundation, and the FRONTLINE Journalism Fund with major support from Jon and Jo Ann Hagler on behalf of the Jon L. Hagler Foundation.PBSPark FoundationMacArthur FoundationwyncoteCPB

FRONTLINE   Watch FRONTLINE   About FRONTLINE   Contact FRONTLINE
Privacy Policy   Journalistic Guidelines   PBS Privacy Policy   PBS Terms of Use   Corporate Sponsorship
FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of WGBH Educational Foundation.
Web Site Copyright ©1995-2014 WGBH Educational Foundation
PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.