Column: Chief of crippled nuclear plant defies superiors, death to help contain crisis

by Shigeru Yamashiro, Chief Editorial Writer

In the wake of the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) nuclear power plant, it was an astonishing sight to see even officials from the embassies of many nations flee Tokyo or Japan itself. At one point in March, the Finnish embassy moved its operations to the city of Hiroshima. With information that has come to light of late, it can be said that these were prudent reactions to the horror unleashed by this event.

In fact, it was miraculous good luck that the accident was contained to the degree achieved. On several occasions the crisis could have spiraled so far out of control that the whole Tokyo metropolitan area could have been covered with radioactive fallout from the plant. At a symposium held in Hiroshima the other day, a comment made by a member of government investigating the accident sent a horrified chill down my spine. He said, when the crisis erupted, the people involved believed that all six nuclear reactors at the site could potentially explode and go up in flames.

Speaking to the media in the middle of November, Masao Yoshida, the chief of the nuclear plant, recalled the first week following the accident and said, “A number of times I thought I would die.” Such words could only have been uttered by someone directing the response on the front lines and risking his life in the process. Shortly after this press conference, Mr. Yoshida stepped down from his post.

In the chaos of the response, Mr. Yoshida often reacted angrily to the repeated demands made by officials at the headquarters of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). At one point, defying his superiors, he ordered that sea water continue to be injected into the crippled reactors. In the aftermath of the crisis, Mr. Yoshida’s action was credited as “a wise decision.” As head of the facility, his sense of mission must have been behind this unilateral decision, a decision on which, while overruling TEPCO officials, he staked his life.

Throughout, the Japanese government continued to announce that the crisis would result in “no immediate effects” on the health of the public. But behind the scenes, there was the imminent possibility that the crisis would grow much worse. As a member of the media, I feel frustrated that the information known was not revealed to the public. I am eager to hear Mr. Yoshida speak frankly about his experiences of the period he was willing to lay down his life to help contain the crisis.

(Originally published on November 30, 2011)