Prologue to Catastrophe: An Eyewitness Account from Inside Fukushima

ByMasaharu Fujiyoshi

To commemorate the third anniversary of the Fukushima disaster, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists shares an eyewitness account from inside the nuclear complex immediately following the massive earthquake and tsunami.

In September 2011, six months after disaster shook the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in Japan, the newly formed Independent Investigation Commission on the Fukushima Nuclear Accident launched a national campaign to collect personal testimonials from those who experienced the accident at the plant and those who were forced to evacuate the area close to the plant. The commission launched a website to serve as an online meeting point; it published questions, and the public provided in-depth answers. For half a year, the commission received hundreds of responses to its queries. Though the commissioners found all the reactions to be insightful and useful to the investigation, they needed to hear several responses firsthand.

One such story was from a subcontractor of the Tokyo Electric Power Company, known as TEPCO, which owns the nuclear power plant. He was among several hundred workers who were at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station when the great earthquake and subsequent tsunami occurred in eastern Japan. He worked in the plant’s Crisis Center, located on the second floor of the earthquake-resistant building, and recounted his story of what happened as the accident unfolded on March 11, 2011. He was promised anonymity as a condition of providing his account.

The commission turned to the TEPCO subcontractor to find an answer to this particular question. What were the decisions facing TEPCO’s General Manager Masao Yoshida as he was flooded with information?

Ultimately, Yoshida would make headlines when he famously disobeyed instructions from TEPCO headquarters to stop using seawater to cool the reactors. Though he was later reprimanded, his disregard for corporate instructions was possibly the only reason that the reactor cores did not explode.

I first felt the earthquake as I walked from the vicinity of Units 5 and 6—which are located near the ocean—to the site’s entrance gate. Suddenly, the asphalt began to ripple, and I couldn’t stay on my feet. In a panic, I looked around and saw a 120-meter exhaust duct shaking violently and looking like it would rupture at any second. Cracks began to appear on the outside of Unit 5’s turbine building and on the inside of the entryway to the unit’s service building. The air was filled with clouds of dirt.

Conitnue here: Prologue to Catastrophe


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