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Inside Japan’s Nuclear Meltdown

 Dan Edge


Part II


8:00 AM
 Day 4

NARRATOR: Back at the plant, the situation was about to get even worse. The explosion had already set back efforts to get water into the melting cores of Reactors 1 and 2. Now Reactor 3 was also in meltdown. TEPCO needed help.

A specialist team of soldiers was ordered to the site. Another hydrogen build-up meant the Reactor 3 housing could explode at any moment.

Col. SHINJI IWAKUMA: [through interpreter] I was desperately trying to work out how we could get the job done quickly. I was nervous. Although we had trained for it, this was actually our first time in a radioactive area.

NARRATOR: Colonel Shinji Iwakuma and his team wore suits that shielded their bodies from radioactive particles but provided no protection against lethal gamma rays. Their mission was to inject water directly into the core of Reactor 3.

Col. SHINJI IWAKUMA: [through interpreter] Just as we were about to get out of the jeep to connect the hose, it exploded. Lumps of concrete came ripping through the roof of the jeep. Radioactive matter was leaking in through the bindings of our masks. Our dosimeter alarms were ringing constantly.

NARRATOR: The soldiers were now surrounded by lethally radioactive debris. They were injured in the blast but managed to flee the scene before anyone received a fatal dose.

Col. SHINJI IWAKUMA: [through interpreter] I was desperate to get away from the danger. We were lucky on many levels. We were lucky. Just lucky.

3:00 PM 
Day 4

NARRATOR: Parts of the nuclear plant were now completely off limits to the workers. Radiation levels near one of the reactor buildings were at 1,000 millisieverts per hour. After an hour of exposure at these levels, radiation sickness sets in. A few hours would mean death.

TAKASHI SATO: [through interpreter] In the control room, people were saying we were finished. They were saying it quietly, but they were saying it. We felt we had to flee. This was the end.

3:00 AM 
Day 5

NARRATOR: That night in Tokyo, the prime minister was awakened with a disturbing message. He says he was told that TEPCO planned to withdraw their workers from the plant.

NAOTO KAN: [subtitles] I thought withdrawal was out of the question. If they withdrew, six reactors and seven fuel pools would be abandoned. Everything would melt down. Radiation tens of times worse than Chernobyl would be scattered.

NARRATOR: At that moment in Fukushima, the plant manager, Masao Yoshida, had gathered all the workers together.

“MURAKAMI”: [through interpreter] 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.”

TAKASHI SATO: [through interpreter] It’s probably bad to admit it, but I was relieved. I just wanted to get out.

5:30 AM
 Day 5

NARRATOR: Meanwhile, the prime minister was arriving at TEPCO headquarters in Tokyo, determined to stop total withdrawal. He demanded to speak to TEPCO’s executives. Via a video link, he was watched by the engineers in Fukushima.

NAOTO KAN: [subtitles] I said, “This is a very tough situation. But you cannot abandon the plant. The fate of Japan hangs in the balance. All those over 60 should be prepared to lead the way in a dangerous place. Otherwise, we’re handing Japan over to an invisible enemy. This would affect not just Japan, but the whole world.”

NARRATOR: To this day, there is controversy about what TEPCO intended. The company executives say they never planned to completely abandon the plant.

AKIO KOMORI, Managing Director, TEPCO Nuclear Division: [subtitles] We never said that all employees would withdraw. We said we wanted to look into withdrawing. We were considering withdrawing some of the workers.

NARRATOR: That morning, TEPCO evacuated all but a skeleton crew led by plant manager Yoshida. The remaining men were to become known as the Fukushima 50. For now, they were locked down in the central control room.

“MURAKAMI”: [through interpreter] The radiation level was ridiculously high. We just didn’t know what to do. The reactors were unmanned. Unmanned.

NARRATOR: Hundreds of workers were on standby a few miles away, ready to lay pipes that could pump water into the reactors. But the radiation levels were now too high for them to approach the plant.

A team of American nuclear specialists, who’d just arrived in Japan, were fearful that TEPCO and the government had run out of ideas.

CHUCK CASTO, Nuclear Regulatory Commission: We were given numbers, very low numbers of people who were on the site, and we knew that that wasn’t sufficient to do what needed to be done at that time.

NARRATOR: That day, frustrated at the lack of information the prime minister was giving them, the Americans decided to fly a surveillance drone over the plant. The data they got was disturbing.

A third hydrogen explosion had exposed pools of discarded radioactive fuel to the atmosphere. These spent fuel rods were still highly radioactive. If the pools boiled dry, they could catch fire, and the contamination could be even worse than from a reactor meltdown.

CHUCK CASTO: We had some pretty clear indication that there was fuel damage occurring in the spent fuel pools from lack of water. And as they were worried about Japanese citizens, we were worried about American citizens. And we thought, to put all this to rest, put water in there.

9:40 AM 
Day 7

NARRATOR:The Japanese prime minister ordered a desperate tactic, dumping water on the spent fuel pools from the air. The first crew to take off knew that Soviet pilots who’d done this during the Chernobyl nuclear accident had subsequently died of cancer.

1st Lt. YOSHIYUKI YAMAOKA, Helicopter Pilot: [through interpreter] That morning, before I started the engine, I called my wife. She said, “If someone has to do it, then go and do your best. I am praying for you.” So she was supportive. She was crying at the time. I almost cried, as well.

NARRATOR: An earlier reconnaissance mission had been abandoned because of high levels of radiation over the reactors. Tungsten plates were now bolted to the helicopter to protect the pilots from gamma rays. The crew knew that they had to drop the water on the move from 300 feet. If they went higher, they’d miss. If they went lower, they could receive dangerous doses of radiation.

1st Lt. YOSHIYUKI YAMAOKA: [through interpreter] At the time, it felt like, “This is it. This is finally it.” Like a tingle down the spine.

NARRATOR: Their target was beneath them.

1st Lt. YOSHIYUKI YAMAOKA: [through interpreter] I will never forget what I saw— the bones, the skeleton of the building, the walls were strewn everywhere. Incredible.

NARRATOR: The world watched the mission live via a camera placed 20 miles from the plant.

1st Lt. YOSHIYUKI YAMAOKA: [through interpreter] The wind was bending the water, so we sprayed it like this. 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.

NARRATOR: But on their second mission, they missed. Other helicopters followed, but the wind was too strong for accurate aiming.

The American nuclear team was monitoring the operation.

CHUCK CASTO: We were taking radiation measurements ourselves to see, after the drop, did the radiation level go down. And it didn’t.

NARRATOR: The United States government began to draw up plans to evacuate 90,000 of its citizens from Japan. For now, they advised all Americans to stay at least 50 miles from the plant. The Japanese evacuation zone remained at 12 miles.

U.S. surveillance now suggested that there were flakes of deadly radioactive fuel scattered around the reactors. This meant that anyone who approached the plant would be risking their lives.

11:00 PM
 Day 8

NARRATOR: Despite the danger, the Japanese government ordered a team of Tokyo firefighters to get water into the fuel pools by any means. The men had no experience of working in radioactive conditions.

Capt. TOYOHIKO TOMIOKA, Tokyo Fire Dept.: [through interpreter] All of our troops gathered. First, we chose all the over-40s. These were the guys who weren’t going to be having any more children.

Capt. OSAMI KAMANAKA, Tokyo Fire Dept.: [through interpreter] I didn’t speak to my family. I’ve taught them that at any moment, I might go into these situations.

NARRATOR: One of the firefighters went ahead to plot a route. But the radiation he was exposed to meant he couldn’t accompany his men on their mission.

Capt. TOYOHIKO TOMIOKA: [through interpreter] I was worried about the radiation and the mental welfare of my team. But I had to leave it to them. I waited and prayed.

NARRATOR: The plan was for the firefighters to park a truck by the sea to suck up water, then lay 800 yard of hose and leave it spraying into the fuel pool.

OFFICER: [subtitles] Does everyone have their lights ready?

NARRATOR: Unique footage filmed that night from the front line of the nuclear disaster shows the firefighters preparing to approach the reactors.

OFFICER: [subtitles] The truck along the seawall will be the one that heads towards the ocean. OK, good luck!

NARRATOR: They gave themselves 60 minutes to complete the mission. Any longer would expose them to excessive radiation.

Capt. OSAMI KAMANAKA: [through interpreter] When we arrived at Fukushima Dai-ichi, it was so quiet. No wind, an eerie silence. The first thing we saw was tsunami debris. The roads were violently twisted. I was worried we wouldn’t be able to complete the mission in one hour.

FIREFIGHTER: [subtitles] I’m getting 0.4 millisieverts.

FIREFIGHTER: [subtitles] OK, 0.4 millisieverts. No problem.

NARRATOR: A radiation-monitoring vehicle set off in front of the firefighters.

FIREFIGHTER: [subtitles] OK, we are moving. 0.4 millisieverts.

NARRATOR: Within minutes, the route was blocked by tsunami debris. The firefighters now had to lay the hose by hand, taking radiation readings as they went.

FIRE DEPT. VIDEO: [subtitles]

— Move from the middle!

— Watch the manhole!

— Is the manhole on the left?

— Yes, the left!

NARRATOR: The alarms on the dosimeters signaled a dangerous increase in radiation.

FIRE DEPT. VIDEO: [subtitles]

— Stop! Almost there!

— The hoses are there!

— Keep to the right!

— No, keep to the left!

— What are you reading?

— I’m getting 70 millisieverts.

— I’m getting 100 millisieverts here!

— 100 millisieverts!

— Everyone not working take cover inside the truck!

— Take a step back! Pull back!

— OK, get away from the building as soon as you can.

NARRATOR: After an hour on site, the hoses were finally connected.

Capt. OSAMI KAMANAKA: [through interpreter] I was told on the radio that the water was spraying, so I started to think we had completed our mission. Then I just wanted to get out of there. We ran to the minibus and left.

NARRATOR: As the firefighters withdrew, radiation levels at the plant began to fall. The men started back for Tokyo. Some had still not told their families what they’d been doing.

Capt. OSAMI KAMANAKA: [through interpreter] When I got home, I was told off. My wife said, “So where have you been? A phone call would have been nice.”

NARRATOR: With radiation levels lower, TEPCO seized their chance. The hundreds of workers who’d been on standby headed into the plant. Their mission was to lay miles of pipes that would channel a constant flow of water into the reactor cores. They had to work fast in case radiation levels spiked again.

“YANAI”: [through interpreter] At the time, in March, we didn’t wear dosimeters. TEPCO didn’t tell us directly where radiation levels were highest.

NARRATOR: TEPCO now says most of their dosimeters were washed away in the tsunami, but that they ensured each group of workers had one.

“YANAI”: [through interpreter] It was an emergency operation and we were in a hurry. No one complained. We all understood. Even if it broke the rules, we kept quiet about it.

NARRATOR: When the pipes were laid, a steady flow of water at last started to cool the reactor cores. After days in fear of dying, the workers in the control center began to feel hope.

“MURAKAMI”: [through interpreter] People around me, their expressions grew brighter. Angry voices fell silent. The bosses calmed down.

NARRATOR: Weeks of difficult and often perilous work lay ahead, but the most dangerous phase of the crisis was over.

Day 9

NAOTO KAN, Prime Minister, 2010-11: [subtitles] Until then, we were pushed and pushed by an invisible enemy. Finally, the system was in order. The turnaround began.

NARRATOR: The prime minister was later forced to resign, accused by his critics of mishandling the crisis.

TEPCO faces having to pay tens of billions of dollars in damages. The company is on the verge of bankruptcy.

The workers who battled to save the plant face an uncertain future. None of them have died from their exposure to radiation, but more than a hundred received doses which increase their risk of developing cancer in the future.

NAOTO KAN: [subtitles] After the Second World War, people in Japan no longer died for their country. In this case, escape was not an option. Fighting was the only way. That it did not get any worse was God’s will. That first week, we walked a razor-thin line.

NARRATOR: The radiation released by the Fukushima meltdowns contaminated hundreds of square miles of northeastern Japan. More than 100,000 people fled the fallout.

Norio Kimura moved to the mountains of Hakuba. Only here, on the other side of the country, did he feel his surviving daughter was safe from radiation. In the weeks after the tsunami, the bodies of his wife and father had been recovered. But his youngest daughter, Yuna, was still missing.

Four months after the disaster, Norio is travelling back to Fukushima. An exclusion zone is still in force for 12 miles around the plant. Animals abandoned by their owners have starved to death. Others roam wild. Some of these districts are contaminated so badly that they will be uninhabitable for decades.

Just two miles from the nuclear power plant, the evacuees from Norio’s village are holding a ceremony for those who died in the tsunami. For Norio, it’s a chance to say farewell to the family he had to leave behind.

NORIO KIMURA: [through interpreter] It has been four months since you suddenly disappeared. I have been wondering why this happened. One day, we will return here to live, looking at the sea that took you from us. We do not know when this will be, but we will definitely return. On behalf of the bereaved, Norio Kimura.


Download a PDF file of the complete transcript of Inside Japan’s Nuclear Meltdown (Parts I and II) here:

Inside Japan’s Nuclear Meltdown


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