Voices From the Inside: Fukushima’s Workers Speak

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As part of our recent film Inside Japan’s Nuclear Meltdown, FRONTLINE interviewed several workers who were at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant when the earthquake and tsunami hit last March. Because TEPCO, the company that runs the plant, has forbidden its workers to speak publicly about the subsequent nuclear meltdown, some requested anonymity for fear of being fired.

This is the disaster in their own words, translated and curated from their interviews.

The Beginning

“Ono,” Fukushima Daiichi worker
In the Japanese school system, children go on educational trips twice a year — hiking in the local town or mountains; sometimes visiting the facilities such as a museum. We had the nuclear power plant nearby, so we were taken to the nuclear power plant instead of going hiking in a mountain. …

Why did I choose to work in that power plant? … The answer is easy: Because I had been so familiar with that power plant since I was a child. … And also, there were many people who were working for the company around me. So, it was very natural for me to choose to work there.

“Mr. Tamura,” a “Nuclear Gypsy” who is contracted to work for different nuclear companies across Japan
I decided to work at nuclear plants because my friend introduced me. Because it’s dangerous work, … it pays more than engineering public work. I had heard about these things so when a friend asked me if I would go, I said I wanted to. … [I didn't think about the danger] at all. Only that they paid well. That’s all I thought about at the time. …

On March 11, 2011, a powerful earthquake hit the northeast coast of Japan. It registered a 9.0 on the Richter scale, making it Japan’s worst earthquake in recorded history. Workers tell of the scene at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

“Ono,” Fukushima worker
In the previous week or two, we had had some big earthquakes regularly, so we were joking that one enormous earthquake might occur. And that joke turned out to be real.

The ground swayed greatly from side to side, and soon after, it started shaking laterally and vertically before we realized what was actually happening. It was a huge sway, which I had never imagined, and continued for a long time. I realized that we were in the serious situation and thought that hundreds of people might have killed by this.

“The more you learn about the nuclear power plant, the more you see the complexity of the systems. There are backups, which also have their backups. We never thought that all of those double or triple backup systems would become unusable.”

I also thought of the risk of tsunami and building collapse. I somehow stood up thinking that I would be able to survive if the building did not collapse.

“Murakami,” senior TEPCO engineer
The shaking was really incredible. The ceiling’s lighting — to adjust it there are latticed panels, but all of them had fallen down, and there was a bit of a dust cloud. Then the power [died]. …

We could not stand, that is for sure, so we were on our knees and holding on to the railings. The people around us, of course the shaking was incredible, so they could barely do anything. …

The central control room is the safest place to be — that was in my head. It was an incredible earthquake, but I did not think at all about the nuclear reactor breaking.

Takashi Sato, plant inspector who no longer works for TEPCO
I myself was thinking that we were having just another earthquake, so I wasn’t particularly surprised. …

There were people who were hiding underneath their desks; some were holding down their computers; some were holding down large monitors. As the earthquake continued for a long time and kept getting gradually stronger, I too started thinking that this wasn’t your normal earthquake.

Up to that point I’d never gotten under a desk during an earthquake, but I too dove under my desk because the earthquake was shaking so strongly, the panels on the ceiling in the administrative office, just as I was thinking they looked like they could fall down, they all came crashing down, which was a shock. …

When the earthquake happened, I wasn’t worried about the condition of the plant. I’ve been working in nuclear energy for a long time, so I felt that the safest place to be was inside of the plant, and in fact, felt that the safest place to evacuate to in the case of an incident was into the plant itself. I didn’t think that the plant would in some way be damaged.

However, although I did think that a tsunami could potentially come, I myself didn’t understand the size of the tsunami that might arrive. …

A tsunami hit a few hours after the earthquake. The biggest of its waves measured as high as 40 feet, much taller than the 17 feet the plant was designed to withstand.

Takashi Sato, plant inspector
When the tsunami actually hit, I was in front of the earthquake-resistant building putting together temporary toilets. …  After we finished assembling the toilets, after we evacuated inside the earthquake-resistant building.

When I entered inside, there was an emergency response room already set up on the second floor. At that time, plant manager [Masao] Yoshida was getting instructions from headquarters. The section heads of each section … were communicating back and forth with TEPCO headquarters, but we still had not received any direct news about a tsunami. …

Takashi Sato

Those at the headquarters had no doubt been hearing detailed information. Those people were no doubt consumed by panic.

But those such as myself, who weren’t inside of the emergency headquarters room, those of us who were in surrounding rooms, in the hallways, I think that we were all fairly calm.

Because cell phones weren’t working, the office women, and myself as well, along with other co-workers, we were unable to contact our homes, make contact with the outside world, so that is what we were most worried about.

“Ono,” Fukushima worker
We knew that the huge tsunami was coming, but we still could not guess what kind of devastation would be caused by it afterwards. …

At that time, we could not imagine that the tsunami would sweep away heavy oil tanks, equipment and pumps to cool down the nuclear reactors; that it would flow down to the basement of the building and submerge the diesel generator which was equipped for the emergency backup; and that it would get all types of the power sources and the pumps damaged.

Something beyond our scope of our assumptions occurred.

“Murakami,” senior TEPCO engineer
The port was broken, in a mess. Cars had ridden the receding wave, and storage units and 5,000-kiloliter fuel oil tanks had been taken out to sea. I could see them gradually sinking. …

The moment I saw that the fuel oil tank being taken away, I thought it was bad. If that disappears, then the emergency fuel will be gone. That’s what I thought. … But I had the presumption that nuclear power would never be destroyed, so I thought that even if that is gone, there must be back-up everywhere.

Multiple sources of power were lost at the plant, which meant that key systems – including those used for cooling and monitoring spent fuel – malfunctioned.

“Ono,” Fukushima worker
No one imagined that the cooling system would be inoperable, at least around me. The more you learn about the nuclear power plant, the more you see the complexity of the systems. There are backups, which also have their backups. We never thought that all of those double or triple backup systems would become unusable. …

We never thought that the spent fuel pool would get such serious damage, as it was built taking into account the possible occurrence of an earthquake. On top of that, a great amount of water was in it, so we never imagined it would be empty.

Takashi Sato, plant inspector
Because power had been lost, those of us who had come by car or with an employer’s vehicle were asked for their batteries in order to help restore power. We were told that we had to assemble over a certain number of batteries. …

When I was told that I needed to offer the battery from my own car, I thought that the situation was dire, and I thought that no matter how many batteries we were able to collect, it might not be enough.

But I thought that they would just request a mobile electric generator from headquarters, so I wasn’t particularly panicked.

“Murakami,” senior TEPCO engineer
In order to restore the measuring instruments, they brought in car batteries and connected them directly to the measuring instruments and revived them. And so the monitoring functions were secured, to an extent.

But the pressure rose and rose and rose. So what should we do? …

We couldn’t move the machines. So even though we wanted to cool down, we couldn’t send in the water. …

I thought this was incredibly dangerous. …

Seawater is used to cool the reactors — but when you use seawater, you render the plant inoperable in the future.

“Murakami,” TEPCO engineer
To cool down is common sense to us, working in the power plant. Even for the people in head office, it’s common sense. …

So of course in the power plant, everyone was thinking, “Pump in seawater. It is all we can do.”

And everyone is starting to take action towards that — taking fire department pump cars to the edge of the harbor, putting in the hose, pulling the hose. … We were pouring seawater in. …

There was an order from the official residence to stop pumping seawater. … Then in a later counterargument, Mr. Masao Yoshida … said “Don’t be stupid. Ignore, ignore. Leave it.” And we kept pumping in seawater. We know that it will corrode the quality of the material. … But cooling down is the most important.

Later that day, reactor 1 exploded.

Takashi Sato, plant inspector
I sometimes hung out with colleagues in the passageway between the earthquake-resistant building and the administrative offices. …

There was a loud rumbling of the earth that made everything shake. At the time, I thought that another large aftershock had hit. It shook like an aftershock and arrived like a strong rumbling of the earth. … It hit like a thunderclap. … I was extremely surprised. …

I did not think at that time that the loud noise was an explosion. But there was a very loud sound, which I thought was related to an aftershock. And then immediately after that there were reports by wireless radio from on-site saying that there was smoke rising from reactor 1.

When I first heard that information was when I first realized that the plant had exploded. …

After the explosion, we weren’t able to sleep soundly.  We might be able to catch a few winks in a hallway, but even if we were sleeping, we were very anxious and really just lying down and unable to relax.

“Murakami,” TEPCO engineer
I was thrown a foot from my chair. No one knew what it was. Maybe an earthquake? … “Boof.” That’s what it felt like. …

Then Yoshida said, “Did reactor 1 just explode?” Then we all panicked. …

We said, “This is bad.” Then there came the injured. …

“Murakami”

We knew that reactor 1 had blown, but reactors 2 and 3, the reactor pressures were building, and there was no water. …

Many of us thought of running away. But there was no escape. If you actually ran, you would be exposed to radiation. Staying here, at the earthquake-proof building, of course it’s like a nuclear shelter. It has air conditioning, that can deal with it, air conditioning functions, it has a shielding effect, and of course it’s strong against earthquakes. So it was safe place.

The same with the reactor buildings, the same with the central control rooms, so we thought it was safe. So rather then getting out of here, rather getting out now, it was better to stay inside. I think most people thought that.

On day four, reactor 3 exploded.

Takashi Sato, plant inspector
When reactor 3 exploded, the noise could not be compared to the noise I heard when reactor 1 exploded. The sound was different… all of the glass windows in the administrative building shattered from the blast of the explosion.

The glass windows in the administrative building shattered and the walls of TEPCO warehouses cracked the instant the sound and blast from the explosion hit. …

When I heard that sound after reactor 1 had exploded, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to leave for awhile. But when I heard the sound of reactor 3 exploding, I thought that I might never be able to leave this place. …

The atmosphere in the emergency response room after reactor 3 exploded, even among TEPCO employees, was that we were finished. There were people saying that, even if they were saying it softly. Some were questioning how long we should stay there, saying we needed to flee as quickly as possible.

In the early hours of day five, word came that TEPCO planned to withdraw its entire workforce from Fukushima – an event the government and TEPCO disagree on.

“Murakami,” TEPCO engineer
That morning, at about 5:30 a.m., Mr. Yoshida said, “I have something to discuss, everyone please gather.” There were some people asleep, so everyone woke up, and everyone gathered at the head chair in the earthquake-proof building.

Yoshida said, “Starting now, we are going to evacuate.” At that point, Yoshida was resigned to his fate. I’m sure he was prepared to die himself, but he couldn’t kill 250 people. So he said, “Just go home. We’ve done this much. We can do no more. Just go home.”

“I remember one of them said to the other, ‘We will have cancer after 10 years, won’t we?’ Nobody answered him. There were more people there apart from us, but none of them said anything. It might be because nobody wants to answer that question.”

Two hundred or so workers had stayed, although they had been asked to go home. For the time being, they went to Fukushima Daini’s gymnasium, which was designated as the evacuation site for the people here.

So on that morning of the 15th, we all got into cars together, and using company cars also, 200 or so people evacuated to Daini. Then the now famous “Fukushima 50” were the 57 people who stayed. Fifty-seven people stayed. I did not stay. I evacuated to Fukushima Daini gymnasium. The 57 who remained of course were the head of plant, the deputy head of plant, the unit head of plant, the managers of each department, and each group manager.

Takashi Sato, plant inspector
Honestly, I was relieved when the plant manager said that it was okay for us to leave. I knew what it was like to work in nuclear power, and with the plant in such a condition, I probably shouldn’t have thought that. Seen from the perspective of someone who doesn’t know nuclear power, some might think that is irresponsible, leaving the plant when the situation is so bad. … I’m sure there will be people who say that.

It’s probably bad to admit it, but I was relieved. I just wanted to get out.

As things stabilized, workers were slowly called back to Fukushima.

“Mr. Tamura,” a “Nuclear Gypsy,” contracted to work for different companies
I got the call, and it wasn’t a very heavy atmosphere, it was no different from usual. “We’re looking for people to do emergency work in 1F [reactor 1]. Can you go?” It was the head of the company above my company. He called me and said that. From the beginning I was curious and I felt like I wanted to go, so I immediately said “Yes, I’ll go.” …

After that I hung up immediately and called the head of my own company, and told him “I don’t know when exactly, but I’m going to the Daiichi nuclear plant to undertake emergency work.” Apparently the head manager of the company above had already called [and] asked my boss if there was anyone who could go and die. To which my boss replied, since it is his own company, “No, there is no such person here.” Then I called and told him I was going, so he was surprised. But he didn’t stop me. …

I called my parents on the way to the office. I just said, “I’m going to 1F.” … My parents heard that and said, “Take care.” They didn’t cry or anything. They joked that if I went and came back, I would be a hero. … They probably knew that I would go even if they tried to stop me. So they just supported me. …

We arrived at J-Village in Hirono-machi in Fukushima at about 2:00 in the morning. … When we arrived at J-Village, there was no lighting and it was pitch black. Everyone was moving using the car headlights. … J-village itself was not in a panic and it did not look like a war zone. But there were things we needed to prepare, like full-face masks, Tyvex, protective clothing, we had things we needed to prepare. So we all started moving. …

Once we got to J-Village, we still hadn’t received the go-ahead to get in to 1F, so we put on the protective clothing and masks and prepared ourselves to go into 1F at any time. We all waited inside the microbus. We waited from about 2:00 to 5:00 in the morning. …

We waited until 5:00 in the morning, and then we received the go-ahead to go into 1F. So we headed to 1F in the same microbus. We headed there, and there’s this building, a base-isolated building, so we all went inside and had a detailed briefing session on the work we would be doing. For most of the morning we were in meetings. That afternoon, after 12:00, the meetings finished and we headed to the site. We put on protective wear and masks, and then headed to the site. …

At reactor 5 we had to pump seawater. … There are these pipes that send the water into the reactor buildings, and we had to connect it to these and create an environment where the reactor can be kept at a cool temperature. …

The operation itself, pulling up seawater from the sea, and cooling it down, it was to fit the unit needed to pump the seawater. We arrived at about 1:00, and prepared and worked until about 7:00 or 8:00 at night, installing the device. …

In theory working non-stop for eight hours is unthinkable, but it was an emergency operation and we were in a hurry, so no one complained, we all understood. Even if it wasn’t allowed, we kept going.

Almost two weeks after the earthquake and tsunami, a worker headed back to the plant for the first time after the meltdown.

“Ono,” Fukushima worker
On [March 23], I got dressed and had breakfast while I was waiting for being picked up. Then I left the evacuation center.

People came out to see me. They might have somehow realized that I was going to go back to the plant. They came out and looked at my face.

There was an officer near the exit. When I met his eyes, I think he also got a hint that I was going back to work, and he showed his appreciation saying “I hope you will take good care of this.”

“Ono”

I bowed him and got on the car which was waiting outside to pick me up. I thought that I have to fight back in the plant with the future of all of refugees and our country, Japan on my shoulder. I thought I had to work hard, with the Rising Sun on my shoulder, as the Japanese say. …

Inside the earthquake-proof building, something I would never be able to forget happened.

When I went to the toilet, there were a couple of people, probably workers of TEPCO, and I was chatting with them while we were doing our duties standing side by side.

I remember one of them said to the other, “We will have cancer after 10 years, won’t we?” Nobody answered him. There were more people there apart from us, but none of them said anything.

It might be because nobody wants to answer that question. …

Then we started working around the power plant. I cannot forget. We got to near the building with the reactor inside. There was a scene which I had seen on TV and in newspapers in front of me. The sight that I had never imagined was in front of me.

The building that I believed that it would never cause any explosion or meltdown, was left just with its framework and there was rubble around it. … This is the sight what I saw at that time.

I was horrified, to be honest.

Then we wore the masks, which we hardly wore before in the reactor building except the time when the building was extremely polluted, white Tyvek suits, rubber gloves and long boots and worked.

I had never imagined we would work like this outside the building. Everything I saw was so unusual and something I had never imagined. We try to keep our calm. We could not work without remaining calm. Because we knew that we would get injured if we got panicked. If we were panicked, we wouldn’t be able to grab the actual situations and somebody would get injured at some point.

So we tried to remain calm.

I remember that the wind was blowing at that time and I got some sand which was probably washed away from the coast by tsunami on my body. It was a cold wind of early spring, and sand driven by the wind hit my body. …

I think that I am going to die from cancer or leukemia in the future because of working in the power plant. At least, I do not expect that I am going to die of natural causes without being influenced by working there. I have been thinking that I would definitely die influenced by something caused by working in the plant. I have no idea if it happens 50 years, 30 years or 10 years later.

I might get married or have children in the future, but it may be difficult. Because after the atomic bombs was dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was discrimination against the victims of the nuclear bombing. There were many people at that time who do not wish to marry or have children with those who had been influenced by radiant ray. Such things could happen in Fukushima as well.

For additional accounts, read our interviews with Akio Komori, the managing director of TEPCO’s nuclear division, and Naoto Kan, Japan’s prime minister during the disaster.

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