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In the early staged of the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima power plant, the struggle to contain and manage the disaster was carried out by largely anonymous workers who remained at the plant while hundreds of others who worked there had been evacuated by because of radiation concerns. Their efforts were characterized as a mixture of “panic, heroism and frustration.”

Keith Bradsher and Hiroko Tabuchi wrote in New York Times: “A small crew of technicians, braving radiation and fire, became the only people remaining at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station on Tuesday — and perhaps Japan’s last chance of preventing a broader nuclear catastrophe. They crawl through labyrinths of equipment in utter darkness pierced only by their flashlights, listening for periodic explosions as hydrogen gas escaping from crippled reactors ignites on contact with air. They breathe through uncomfortable respirators or carry heavy oxygen tanks on their backs. They wear white, full-body jumpsuits with snug-fitting hoods that provide scant protection from the invisible radiation sleeting through their bodies.” [Source: Keith Bradsher and Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, March 15, 2011]

“They are the faceless 50, the unnamed operators who stayed behind. They have volunteered, or been assigned, to pump seawater on dangerously exposed nuclear fuel, already thought to be partly melting and spewing radioactive material, to prevent full meltdowns that could throw thousands of tons of radioactive dust high into the air and imperil millions of their compatriots. The workers — and an increasing proportion of soldiers — keep hundreds of gallons of seawater a minute flowing through temporary fire pumps into the three stricken reactors, Nos. 1, 2 and 3.”

Michiko Otsuka a female worker at the Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco) plant wrote a blog post about the battle to keep the reactors from overheating, saying the brave workers at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power plant were risking their lives to keep the situation under control. The posting was translated by the Singaporean site the Straits Times and was quoted by the Guardian, the AFP, and other international news outlets.[Source: AP]

"In the midst of the tsunami alarm, at 3am in the night when we couldn't even see where we going, we carried on working to restore the reactors from where we were, right by the sea, with the realization that this could be certain death," she wrote. "The machine that cools the reactor is just by the ocean, and it was wrecked by the tsunami. Everyone worked desperately to try and restore it. Fighting fatigue and empty stomachs, we dragged ourselves back to work. There are many who haven't gotten in touch with their family members, but are facing the present situation and working hard."

Otsuka apologized to residents who lived near the reactors, but also noted that workers at the facility were risking their lives to place the crisis under control. "Watching my co-workers putting their lives on the line without a second thought in this situation, I'm proud to be a member of TEPCO, and a member of the team behind Fukushima No. 2 reactor," she wrote.

"We must ensure safety and health of workers, but we also face a pressing need to get the work done as quickly as possible," nuclear safety agency spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama said. Japan's prime minister said his government would succeed in bringing the Fukushima plant under control. Japan will "do whatever it takes to win the battle" he said. “We will establish a system that could respond to any situation based on an assumption that anything could happen." [Source: Christina Boyle, Daily News, April 1st 2011]

Websites, Links and Resources


Members of the Fukushima Fifty

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decontamination room
The workers who braved the high levels of Fukushima nuclear power plant at the Fukushima nuclear power plant became known as the “Fukushima Fifty” as about 50 of them were posted at the plant. This refers to the number that as left behind when about 800 workers, including nuclear specialists were evacuated. The 50 left behind were in charge of supplying water to the reactors. They worked 23 hour shifts with a one-hour nap each day.

The mother of a 32-year-old plant worker told Fox News in a tearful phone interview, "My son and his colleagues have discussed it at length and they have committed themselves to die if necessary to save the nation. He told me they have accepted they will all probably die from radiation sickness in the short term or cancer in the long-term." The wife of another workers said, "I didn't want him to go."But he's been working in the nuclear industry since he was 18 and he's confident it's safe."

TEPCO said that about 20 people had volunteered to help the skeleton team of workers at the plant. A core team of workers has been rotating in and out in hopes of reducing their radiation exposure. During a couple instances when radiation levels spiked the entire plant was evacuated. When radiation levels dropped the workers returned. "I don't know any other way to say it, but this is like suicide fighters in a war," Keiichi Nakagawa, associate professor of the Department of Radiology at University of Tokyo Hospital told The Daily Mail.

The mother mentioned above, who chose to remain anonymous told Fox News: "They have concluded between themselves that it is inevitable some of them may die within weeks or months. They know it is impossible for them not to have been exposed to lethal doses of radiation." She said her 32-year-old son slept on a desk because he was too nervous about lying on the floor at night. "They say high radioactivity is everywhere and I think this will not save him," she added. [Source: Christina Boyle, Daily News, April 1st 2011]

Hiroyuki Kohno, a 44-year-old Fukushima plant worker told Agence France Press (AFP) that he promptly answered the all-hands emergency call issued by his employer, a TEPCO subcontractor, after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. The e-mail appeal from his employer read: "Attention. We would like you to come work at the plant. Can you?" [Source: Kimi De Freytas of Agence France Press and Brett Michael Dykes of The Lookout, April 5, 2011]

Kohno told AFP’s he knew what the message implied."To be honest, no one wants to go," Kohno told De Freytas. "Radiation levels at the plant are unbelievably high compared with normal conditions. I know that when I go this time, I will return with a body no longer capable of work at a nuclear plant."

Brett Michael Dykes of The Lookout wrote: “Kohno told De Freytas that as a single man with no children, he felt obligated to answer the call and join the team. Better that he face the risk, he explained, so as to spare his colleagues who have dependents counting on them. Besides, he added, the workers in the plant are his brothers and sisters, and he feels an allegiance to them.

Some workers have said they feel they are being pressured to take the high-risk jobs at the plant. "It's dangerous work there, I'm sure, but if I refuse, I don't think I would keep my job," one 41-year-old contractor, who was asked by his employer to return to his job of scanning work areas to see if they are safe, told the Tokyo Shimbun. He said he will go back to work there this month. So will another contractor in his 40s who is worried about putting food on the table. "The reactors may be stopped, but I still have expenses," he told the Weekly Post. "I have to support my family. And more than anything, if I refuse to go back I'm genuinely afraid I won't get work again."

Working Condition of the Fukushima Workers

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emergency response room
By late March there were about full-time 350 workers — employees of both TEPCO and TEPCO subcontractors — working in shifts at the Fukushima nuclear power plant with between 270 and 580 people on the buildings at any one time. The shifts lasted from three to five days and were broken up by periods off away from the plant of several days. Most of worker’s time is spent in a quake-resistant building completed in July 2010. Most slept, ate and relaxed in a room with special insulation to protect them from radiation. Some workers slept in corridors at the plant.

For a long time the workers couldn’t get enough food and subsisted on two meals a day rather than three with cookies for breakfast and processed rice and curry for dinner . They were limited to 1.5 liters of water a day, which meant bathes were not an option and washing was done with alcohol. It was even worse at the beginning of the crisis. One TEPCO worker told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Right after the accident, we were getting by in just dried bread. Since we were working with hardly any sleep, we got so exhausted we could hardly chew the stuff. Everyone was just dreaming of a good cup of tea.” [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, March 30, 2011]

The workers wore protective clothing and masks at all times. The masks had activated charcoal filters. The suits — which blocked most but not all kinds of radiation — were made of a synthetic, unwoven fabric and were breathable and relatively light, allowing workers to perform their tasks relative ease and speed. The main goal of the suit was to keep radiation from adhering to the body and preventing inhalation. Dosimeters worn by the workers sounded an alarm if radiation levels exceeded 80 millisieverts. One official told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “The existing gear is not particularly effective in preventing radiation exposure, but it can limit it by allowing workers to conduct work quickly.” Heavy-duty gear with made with sheet of lead or other metals capable of blocking gamma rays and protective masks with hoses and air tanks were used only by workers working in areas with excessive amounts of radiation.

The workers worked between 10:00amd and 5:00pm, sometimes dispersing to other parts of the plant. They had to especially careful of puddles containing very radioactive water. “I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for workers to avoid those puddles,” a TEPCO manager said . If a body checks revealed high levels of radiation the workers was placed in a decontamination room where radioactive substances were washed off.

The manager, Kazuma Yokata, told the Yomiuri Shimbun most workers rotated out regularly in shifts, “but its difficult for management to leave.” The workers had meetings in the morning and at night. At night Yokata said everyone gathered for a group cheer. “Let’s do our best! — they would cry out together.

Lionizing and Understanding the Work of the Fukushima Fifty

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: After the pressure drop that so alarmed observers in Washington, Tokyo Electric temporarily pulled out most of its workers. Six hundred and fifty were sent away, leaving several dozen in the headquarters building. Reporters named them “the Fukushima 50.” They were actually seventy and, by the next day, after more workers returned, about three hundred, but the name stuck, and the concept earned instant fame abroad, where it fit comfortably into clichés about Japan. The Chicago Sun-Times called them “human sacrifices”; British tabloids hailed the “nuclear samurai.” A Facebook page popped up to suggest they be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. People saw in the Fukushima 50 what they wanted? — the exact opposite of the Wall Street bankers,” a blog commentator wrote. “Their nation will love them,” another wrote. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, October 17, 2011]

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“In Japanese disaster films they like heroes who sacrifice everything for the greater good - stoic, determined, refusing to back down in the face of adversity or even certain death. These are the qualities the country admires,” Chris Hogg of BBC News wrote. “Now the newspapers here have a new band of heroes to lionize - the workers, emergency services personnel and the scientists battling to save the Fukushima nuclear plant, their fellow citizens and themselves.” [Source: Chris Hogg BBC News, March 17, 2011]

One woman told the Japanese media her father, who had worked for an electric company for 40 years, had volunteered to help. He was due to retire in September. "The future of the nuclear plant depends on how we resolve this crisis," he was reported to have told his daughter. "I feel it's my mission to help."

Rick Hallard, who worked in the British nuclear industry for more than 30 years, told the BBC the pressure on them will be immense, but that they will probably not feel it until it is over. "They'll be focusing on the key risks and threats," he said. "They will have a very clear idea of what their priorities are." The person in charge of the operation will likely be some distance from the reactors, Mr Hallard said. "You need to be remote from the event to enable you to think," he says, "so that you don't miss things or react too quickly...It's important to take the pressure off the person in charge."

The workers might be faceless heroes for the moment, but their bravery has won them the admiration of many Japanese. "They are sacrificing themselves for the Japanese people," says Fukuda Kensuke, a white collar worker told the BBC. "I feel really grateful to those who continue to work there." "They're putting their life on the line," agrees Maeda Akihiro. "If that place explodes, it's the end for all of us, so all I can do is send them encouragement." Japanese Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, has paid tribute to all those involved, saying they are "making their best effort without even thinking twice about the danger".

TEPCO spokesman Keiichi Kakuta said, “We can’t say they’ve had enough sleep, but their moral has been kept high by media reports that deliver words of encouragement from various people. Everybody has been working hard , with a feeling of sympathy for the troubles caused to local residents.” He add some TEPCO workers lost family members in the tsunami. “Those workers are feeling anxious about family members and their futures, but most of them have kept their feelings to themselves and have been working hard.”

Masao Yoshida, Nuclear Engineer and Chief at Fukushima Plant

Masao Yoshida was the nuclear engineer who took charge of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant after the tsunami but ultimately failed to prevent the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. Hiroko Tabuchi wrote in the New York Times, “Mr. Yoshida had been chief manager at Fukushima Daiichi for just nine months when a 42-foot tsunami inundated the site. Although the company was widely criticized for its handling of the disaster, which forced more than 100,000 people from their homes, Mr. Yoshida won praise for his effort to minimize the damage. He has been faulted, however, for failing to invest in adequate tsunami walls at the company’s nuclear power plants when he was head of nuclear facilities. Mr. Yoshida later apologized to reporters, saying he had been “too lax” in his assumptions of how big a tsunami might hit the coastal plant. [Source: Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, July 9, 2013 ]

”When the tsunami hit, Mr. Yoshida took command from inside a fortified bunker at the plant. In video footage of the command room released by Tokyo Electric last year, Mr. Yoshida can be seen at times pushing his workers to hook up water hoses or procure fuel, at times tearfully apologizing to teams he sent out to check on the stricken reactors. At one point, he ignores an order that he is told comes directly from Prime Minister Naoto Kan to stop injecting seawater into one of the reactors, a last-ditch measure taken by plant workers to try to cool it. (Mr. Kan later denied that he had given such an order, and suggested that Tokyo Electric officials had probably misunderstood.)

“He later offers to lead a “suicide mission” with other older officials to try pumping water into another reactor, but is dissuaded. And as officials warn that core meltdowns have most likely started, he directs men to leave the reactors but stays put in the bunker. Mr. Yoshida later said that the thought of abandoning the plant never occurred to him. “I fear we are in acute danger,” Mr. Yoshida is heard saying in the video shortly after yet another blast rocks the command room. “But let’s calm down a little. Let’s all take a deep breath. Inhale, exhale.”

“Masao Yoshida was born on Feb. 17, 1955, in Osaka, Japan, to a family that ran a small advertising firm. An only child, he spent much of his middle and high school years practicing the Japanese martial art kendo. He went on to study nuclear engineering at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and joined Tokyo Electric after graduate school. He worked his way up through the company’s nuclear power division, overseeing its nuclear plants from 2007 until being appointed chief of Fukushima Daiichi in June 2010. He led the disaster response at Fukushima for eight months before going on sick leave.

“Yoshida died of cancer at the age of 58 in July 2013. He took a leave from Tokyo Electric in late 2011 after receiving a diagnosis of esophageal cancer. Experts have said his illness was not a result of radiation exposure from the accident, given how quickly it came on. On his last day at Fukushima Daiichi in December 2011, according to a book on Mr. Yoshida by Kadota Ryusho, he again rallied his troops. “You still have a difficult road ahead, but I know you will overcome,” Mr. Yoshida is quoted as saying. “I promise to do my best to return.”

Fukushima 700

At a meeting on the evening of March 16, at which the overheating of the spent nuclear fuel storage pool of the No. 4 reactor was on the agenda, Kan was quoted as saying testily: "It's out of question [for TEPCO] to withdraw [from the Fukushima plant]. We may end up being exposed to higher levels of [radioactive] materials than those released in the Chernobyl disaster." [Source: Toshiaki Sato and Koichi Yasuda , Yomiuri Shimbun, March 12, 2012]

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: The Japanese press praised the workers’ bravery and sacrifice, but it generally avoided discussion of the Fukushima 50; Asahi Shimbun suggested that “Fukushima 700" would be more accurate. In the Japanese edition of Newsweek, Takashi Yokota and Toshihiro Yamada wrote that, in the emphasis on the workers, the “predicament of the victims has been made secondary.” But Japan’s unease about the nuclear workers ran deeper than not wanting to distract from the suffering left by the tsunami: the workers were symbols not only of the failure to curb the abuses in the nuclear industry but also of an expanding underclass in a nation where ninety per cent of the public once identified itself as middle class. Years before the tsunami, labor activists had drawn attention to the dangers facing “nuclear gypsies,” the low-level workers who roamed from reactor to reactor looking for work. At the time of the tsunami, some of the workers at the Fukushima plant were earning the yen equivalent of eleven dollars an hour — the same as part-time help at McDonald’s in Tokyo. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, October 17, 2011]

After the tsunami, Tokyo Electric barred rank-and-file employees from speaking publicly, and the ban is still in effect. The closest the Japanese public has come to hearing about workers’ experiences was during an appearance by three firefighters at a press conference on March 19th. “I sent my wife a message that I was going to Fukushima’s nuclear power plant,” Yasuo Sato, a commander of the Tokyo Fire Department’s Hyper Rescue Squad, said. “She replied with a one-line sentence: “Be Japan’s savior.” [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, October 17, 2011]

Jumpers Needed at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant

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In addition to the normal full-time plant workers marshaled to battle the crisis, plant officials hired workers known as "jumpers" — contract employees who agree to complete designated tasks and them make a run for it before are exposed to too much radiation. "Jumpers" were offered as much as $5,000 a day, but many who received the offers turned them down.

Terril Yue Jones of Reuters wrote: “It's a job that sounds too good to be true -- thousands of dollars for up to an hour of work that often requires little training. But it also sounds too outrageous to accept, given the full job description: working in perilously radioactive environments...Workers are reportedly being offered hazard pay to work in the damaged reactors of up to $5,000 per day -- or more accurately, a fraction of a day, since the radiation-drenched shifts must be drastically restricted.” [Source: Terril Yue Jones, Reuters, April 1, 2011]

A TEPCO official said in late March his company has tasks fit for "jumpers." “Sometimes jumpers can make multiple runs if the cumulative dosage is within acceptable limits — although "acceptable" can be open to interpretation,” Jones wrote. “In cases of extreme leaks however the radiation might be so intense that jumpers can only make one such foray in their entire lives, or risk serious radiation poisoning.” Explaining what was required for one task — pumping out contaminated water — a TEPCO official told Reuters, "The pump could be powered from an independent generator, and all that someone would have to do is bring one end of the pump to the water and dump it in, and then run out."

A subcontractor in his 30s in Iwaki city who almost took up the offer told the Weekly Post magazine,"My company offered me 200,000 yen ($2,500) per day."Ordinarily I'd consider that a dream job, but my wife was in tears and stopped me, so I declined. The working time would be less than an hour, so in fact it was 200,000 yen an hour, but the risk was too big." Ryuta Fujita, a 27-year-old worker also from Iwaki told the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper he was offered twice that amount as hazardous duty pay to venture into Fukushima Daiichi's Reactor 2. But Fujita, who evacuated his 3-year-old son and 26-year-old wife to a shelter in a sports arena just outside Tokyo, said the 400,000 yen a day wasn't worth it. "I hear that guys older than 50 are being hired at high pay," he said. "But I'm still young, and radiation scares me. I don't want to work in a nuclear plant again."

“The reluctance of workers to enter the stricken plant highlights one of TEPCO's basic dilemmas -- it can't get people close enough to see if its efforts to cool fuel rods are working; indeed, to confirm what the exact problems are in the first place,” Jones of Reuters wrote. “Most of its efforts have involved pouring water on exposed fuel rods in a bid bring down their temperature and rein in their toxic emissions.”

“Jumpers were common at U.S. nuclear power stations in the 1970s and 1980s. “It's still a job that exists but it's much rarer than in the past,” said Rock Nelson, a manager at Nelson Nuclear Corp in Richland, Washington. These days such jobs are more commonly performed by robots, but the interiors of Fukushima Daiichi's mangled reactor buildings are so filled with debris that using robots is too difficult.

Fukushima Jumpers

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: Over the summer, I met now and then with a worker at the plant who had returned shortly after the meltdowns. He had no illusions about why his country was uneasy with his assignment. “The company caused all these problems, so of course it will have to send people to solve them,” he said. “It’s something to be ashamed of.” He was boyish and animated, an amateur military buff, and he was resigned to the risks associated with his work. When he arrived, workers were still sleeping on the floor, subsisting on canned rations, crackers, juice, and instant rice. By late summer, the food had improved, but extraordinarily dangerous hot spots remained at the plant, including a pipe that was giving off ten sieverts of radiation per hour — enough to deliver a fatal dose in less than thirty minutes. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, October 17, 2011]

In the West “jumpers” are also known as dose fodder, glow boys, and gamma sponges. But this man’s enthusiasm had diminished. He had grown up with a view of the plant from his bedroom window, and now his house had been evacuated. “At Chernobyl, you know, the workers received medals,” he said one evening. “We’ll be lucky if we get a commemorative towel or a ballpoint pen. We are taboo.”

Fukushima Workers Immediately After the Tsunami

Eric Talmadge and Mari Yamaguchi of AP wrote: “Dozens of TEPCO workers stayed on. Keiichi Kakuta was one. He remained in the plant's radiation-proof Emergency Crisis Headquarters, a big, windowless conference room about 300 yards from the Unit 2 reactor. Although it meant leaving his family in Tokyo, Kakuta had jumped at the chance for a public affairs job with TEPCO in Fukushima three years ago. He had always admired the company's teamwork and looked forward to a new challenge. He got the biggest of his life. [Source: Nobuhiko Harada, Noriyuki Yoshida and Hirofumi Imazu, Yomiuri Shimbun, June 20 2011]

The Japanese government nuclear task force reported in June that TEPCO had failed to adequately protect plant workers early on in the crisis, and had provided inadequate information about radiation leaks. About 7,800 workers had been involved in the battle to stabilise the plant as of late May, the report said. While their average exposure dose was well within safe limits, "a certain number" may have been exposed to more than 250 millisieverts per year, the maximum allowable dose under revised government guidelines for Fukushima workers.

Fukushima Workers at Reactor No. 1 Immediately After the Tsunami

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Cooling the reactors was the main objective in the early stages of the crisis and the only way to do this was utilizing whatever water was available. The Yomiuri Shimbun reportedly It took more than 12 hours after the earthquake for workers to inject water into the No. 1 nuclear reactor. At 4:45 p.m. on March 11, about an hour after the plant was hit by tsunami, TEPCO notified the government that it could not confirm the water level inside the No. 1 reactor or whether water was circulating into the reactor properly to cool it. The power company briefly rescinded this report, but again reported an emergency to the government shortly after 5 p.m. [Source: Nobuhiko Harada, Noriyuki Yoshida and Hirofumi Imazu, Yomiuri Shimbun, June 20 2011]

At about 5:45 a.m. on March 12, workers began injecting water into the reactor from fire trucks. More than half a day had passed since Yoshida ordered his subordinates to discuss methods to inject water into the reactor. The main reason for the delay was that a tank had been swept by tsunami onto the road that fire trucks would take to the nuclear reactor, and was blocking access, TEPCO said.

Fire trucks also had trouble securing water. One truck had to shuttle between the reactor and a fire cistern, and even rushed water tanks for other reactors to obtain water. Workers then tried to draw water directly from the sea through a hose. At about 3:30 p.m., just as they began to inject water, the reactor building exploded, damaging the hose and the power vehicle. It took about four hours to find a different route to draw water from the ocean and begin injecting seawater into the nuclear reactor. The condition of the reactor deteriorated further during the delay.

Fukushima Workers at Reactors No. 2 and No. 3 Immediately After the Tsunami

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The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “The condition of the No. 2 reactor was initially not as serious as that of the other reactors, and its emergency cooling system worked until March 14. However, the situation took a sudden turn for the worse when the Nos. 1 and 3 reactor buildings exploded. Workers discovered on the evening of March 11 that one of the No. 2 reactor's switchboards was still working. However, on March 12 the explosion at the No. 1 reactor building cut the cable connecting the switchboard with the power generating vehicle.

On March 14, workers began working to draw water from the sea, but a new explosion at the No. 3 reactor building damaged a pumper truck and a hose. In addition, the explosion damaged the nuclear reactor's system for releasing pressure through a vent. Efforts to release pressure from other smaller vents did not go smoothly, and in the early morning of May 15, workers heard a sound like an explosion from the pressure control room of the reactor's containment vessel.

At about 5:30 p.m. on March 12, Yoshida instructed workers to prepare to vent pressure inside the No. 3 reactor. Early in the morning of the next day, workers headed for the reactor's pressure control room, located at the lower part of the containment vessel, to open the valve of the vent. However, the temperature around the pressure control room was high, as the vent releases high-temperature vapor. Workers also needed to exchange containers of compressed air, which were used to open the valve, in the dark. They were ordered to open and close the valve several times, but various problems interrupted the operations.

Workers had trouble injecting water into the nuclear reactor. They needed to release pressure from the reactor to inject water via a pumper truck, but they could not open the valve after a certain battery ran down. One of the workers brought the battery from his car to the central control room, and connected it to the instrument panel. This finally allowed the workers to open the vent, release the pressure and inject water into the nuclear reactor.

Discussion About Evacuating All the Workers at Fukushima

On the TEPCO’s proposal to withdraw all workers at the plant, Fukushima plant manager Yoshida said: "We would never have left the plant. I did not mention withdrawal even once in talks with officials of the head office...The staff went to work even though they had reached physical limits due to lack of sleep and insufficient food. The plant has recovered to the current condition thanks to them.” [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, August 16, 2012]

At 7:55 p.m. on March 14, according to a TECO teleconference video, TEPCO Vice President Sakae Muto was asked last year at an emergency disaster management office at TEPCO headquarters. "When should all the workers evacuate from the plant?" Before Muto could answer, however, a TEPCO employee interrupted the conversation, showing some documents and told Akio Takahashi, the TEPCO technical fellow who posed the question, "It's too early.” Shortly after at 8:16 p.m., Takahashi broached the topic again, asking, "All workers at 1F [Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant] will evacuate to the visitor's hall at 2F [Fukushima No. 2 nuclear power plant], right?"

Meanwhile, at 8:20 p.m. TEPCO President Masataka Shimizu told Yoshida, "Please be aware that we haven't decided upon a complete withdrawal from the plant at this stage." However, Shimizu added, "We're now working to confirm the status of the situation with the appropriate body." The appropriate body is assumed to be the Prime Minister's Office. "We will make a decision by examining and confirming the situation of the plant," he added. Based on these statements, it seems that TEPCO at least considered removing all the workers at Fukushima.

Radioactivity and Protective Gear at Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant

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A map released by TEPCO in late 2011 showed radioactivity concentrations around Fukushima nuclear power plant. The highest concentrations (300 millisieverts an hour) came from debris piled near reactor No.3. there was also high readings (160 and 75-86 millisieverts an hour) from hoses carrying radioactive water from the reactors. The reading neat the turbine buildings were relatively low (0.4 to 20 millisieverts an hour).

Workers who worked in areas with relatively high radiation wore protective suits comprised of white, nonwoven-textile coveralls, rubber gloves, socks and full-face masks equipped with filters. The gear prevent radioactive particles from touching workers' skin or being inhaled, according to TEPCO. The masks have replaceable filters and can be reused, but the rest of the gear is thrown away after a single use. About 2,000 protective suits are supplied per day to workers at TEPCO plants. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, May 30, 2011]

Workers Exposed to Radiation

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “When three workers descended into the basement of the turbine building for the No. 3 reactor at 10:30 a.m. on March 24, they found a 15-centimeter-deep puddle that had not been there the night before. Just beyond the puddle were water-supply pumps plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. desperately wanted to get running. The workers were there to connect the pumps to outside power cables.” [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, April 2011]

The three workers set about their urgent task, sometimes standing ankle-deep in the puddle. Two of them had their legs exposed to radiation, which measured as high as 400 millisieverts per hour on the water's surface.

In May it was revealed that two female workers at the Fukushima nuclear power plant had been exposed radiation exceeding the legal limit. One woman, who was in her 40s, was exposed to 7.49 millisieverts of radiation (the legal limit is 5 millisieverts) over a three month period while she was caring for sick workers at the plant. The other woman was exposed to 17.55 millisieverts by March 23, when all female employees left the plant. She had been refueling fire trucks while wearing protective gear but may have inhaled radiation while changing clothes. The normal radiation exposure level is 50 millisieverts a year but is lower for women because of the possibility of pregnancy. Neither woman had any health problems.

In mid May a worker collapsed on the job and died at the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. A computed tomography and a blood test indicated the man, who was in his 60s, died of a cardiac infarction, the hospital told The Yomiuri Shimbun, adding it was unlikely that radiation had caused his death. TEPCO said that no doctor was available at the plant when the man collapsed at about 6:50 a.m. after complaining of feeling ill. TEPCO said it has assigned one doctor to the Fukushima No. 2 nuclear power plant and four doctors to J Village, a base for workers' activities at nuclear power plants, to stand by around the clock. However, the utility has stationed one doctor for just six hours a day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant due to concern over the doctor's exposure to radiation. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, May. 16, 2011]

Three Thousand People Still Working at the Fukushima Plant Every Day in November 2011

In November 2011, Koichi Yasuda wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “About 3,000 workers covered in head-to-toe protective gear travel to the nuclear power plant every day from J-Village, originally a sports training facility, in Hironomachi and Narahamachi, about 20 kilometers from the nuclear power plant. Working day shifts at the plant, they change into protective clothes, medical masks and gloves at the center and receive a dosimeter from officials of companies related to TEPCO. Getting on a bus to go to the plant, the workers do not talk much or smile at all. [Source: Koichi Yasuda, Yomiuri Shimbun, November 13, 2011]

Although eight months have passed since the crisis began...the situation is still tense, as work must be done in some locations where radiation levels are still high at 100 millisieverts per hour or more. Work at locations with high radiation levels is limited to about three to four hours a day. However, some workers return to the center covered in sweat. When they enter the plant workers' identities are confirmed and they are given dosimeters.

The overall environment has improved remarkably in the past eight months. Just after the crisis began, workers had to sleep huddled together in hallways, but today two air-conditioned dormitory buildings that can accommodate about 1,600 people stand on what was a training ground for TEPCO's soccer team.

Initially, only simple emergency foods were available, but TEPCO has distributed boxed meals since May and a convenience store opened in August. In September, a restaurant in the center reopened. A 37-year-old man from Aomori Prefecture said, "I'm grateful for the good working environment here." “The mood inside Fukushima Daiichi is totally different now,” a worker who monitors contaminated waste told the New York Times. “Now, radiation levels aren’t so high outside the buildings. But they are still high within the reactor buildings. And there are hot spots, so we have to be careful.” Encouraging messages from children and others are displayed in the changing room and other places at the center, illustrating just how harsh and stressful the job is.

Problems remain. Waste including used protective gear and masks contaminated with low levels of radiation is being stored on a covered soccer practice ground. The pile has reached a volume of 4,000 cubic meters. An official at the center said no measures for disposing of it have been decided.

TEPCO opened the soccer center in 1997 with contributions of ¥13 billion. One of its practice grounds, one of the largest soccer facilities in the nation, has been converted from natural grass to gravel and is being used as a parking lot and heliport.

Worker at No. 1 Reactor Plant Died from Overwork

In February 2012, Kyodo reported: The death last May of a man who had worked at the Fukushima No. 1 plant after the nuclear crisis erupted has been officially attributed to overwork, according to a lawyer representing the man's family. A labor standards inspection office in Yokohama determined that Nobukatsu Osumi's fatal heart attack at age 60 was caused by the excessive physical and mental burdens of having to work all night in protective gear, including a mask, lawyer Akio Ohashi said. [Source: Kyodo, February 25, 2012]

It is the first time the death of a worker involved in the nuclear crisis has been officially recognized as resulting from overwork, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. Osumi was dispatched by a subcontractor, a construction firm based in Shizuoka Prefecture, and started working at Fukushima No. 1 on May 13. On his first day on the job he engaged in piping and other work at a waste disposal facility at the complex, but complained of not feeling well the following morning. He was immediately taken to a hospital, where he died shortly afterward.

Robots Used at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant

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TEPCO first used American-made, remote-controlled robots with tractor treads able to climb stairs and cameras at the end of a retractable arm to get a better look at the damage and measure radiation levels, oxygen and temperatures inside the radiation-filled reactor buildings. In mid April the robots began checking out the damage in places in the nuclear power plant where radiation levels were too high for humans to enter.

The first robots to be used were 510 PackBot robots, made by iRobot, a Bedford-Massachusetts-based company best known for its Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner. More than 3,500 PackBots have been delivered to Afghanistan and Iraq for U.S. military use in detecting and disarming homemade bombs. They've also been employed by police bomb squads and were used to help search for bodies after the Sept. 11 attacks. [Source: John M. Glionna and Yuriko Nagano, Los Angeles Times, May 08, 2011]

iRobot donated four robots and sent six trainers to Japan to show how the robots worked. Describing one of the 510 PackBots at work in Reactor No.2 John M. Glionna and Yuriko Nagano wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The little robot rumbled across an otherworldly landscape, its camera lens clouding up in a hostile atmosphere too toxic for human habitation. Its motor whirring, it dispatched a constant stream of images to nervous operators grouped a safe distance away....No larger than a child’s wagon, it bumps across uneven terrain on hours-long forays. One picture released by the Tokyo Electric Power Co. shows a robot arm slowly and awkwardly manipulating a handle on a pair of double doors that lead into a reactor building.”

Later a similar tractor-tread robot named Quince, developed at Chiba Institute of Technology and Tohoku University, was put to use investigating harder-to-reach places. The 66-centimeter-long, 48-centimeters-wide robot was designed to work in disaster areas or during a terrorist attack. Converted to work under high-radioactivity conditions in a nuclear plant, it uses two main treads and four small tracks on the sides to maneuver over difficult terrain and rubble.

Other robots used at Fukushima nuclear power plant included an unmanned water cannon truck comprised of a a German-concrete-pumping vehicle with remote-controlled systems made by Toshiba and Hitachi installed operated from a truck with shields that block out radioactivity. The British defense contractor Qinetiq Group provided six mobile robots, ranging from lightweight surveillance machines to heavy construction vehicles, including a remote-controlled Bobcat payloader with night-vision cameras, thermal-imaging systems and radiation detectors. A Swedish company — Brokk AB, a manufacturer of remote-controlled demolition machines that provided robots to clean up waste at Chernobyl after the 1986 nuclear disaster — provided machinery to remove rubble from the reactor buildings at Fukushima.

Embarrassment that Foreign Robots Were Used Rather than Japanese Ones at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant

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There was some embarrassment that foreign robots were used rather than Japanese ones. John M. Glionna and Yuriko Nagano wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “in a nation renowned for its robotics research, many here are asking why the remote-controlled machines had to be imported. Critics say Japanese scientists have wasted too much of their expertise developing such gimmicky technology such as robots that can sing, dance and play musical instruments rather than more practical versions that could have been put to use in a national emergency.” [Source: John M. Glionna and Yuriko Nagano, Los Angeles Times, May 08, 2011]

Even after a 1999 accident at a nuclear plant in which two workers died of radiation exposure, Japan's nuclear power industry has been slow to invest in the development of radiation-resistant robots. "In the U.S., the Department of Defense buys sturdy robots like PackBots for military use, and French law makes it mandatory for its government to spend money on technology such as robots for nuclear emergencies as a precautionary measure," Hirohisa Hirukawa, director of the Intelligent Systems Research Institute at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology told the Los Angeles Times, "Japan doesn't have that."

Following the deaths of the two nuclear workers, officials considered developing robots that could cope in nuclear disasters, but the momentum was soon lost. "After they found that the building that housed the nuclear reactor was safe, authorities said, 'There won't be an accident and we won't need such robots,' and efforts to develop such robots have been scrapped," said Masahiro Sakigawara, general manager at the Future Robotics Technology Center at the Chiba Institute of Technology.

New Disaster-Relief Robot Unveiled

In November 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Rosemary, a robot developed by the Chiba Institute of Technology for use in nuclear disaster rescue operations, was demonstrated to show how the robot responds to various obstacles by climbing over wood and other objects representing disaster debris. The robot, the latest to be developed by the university, is set to be deployed at Fukushima [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, November 25, 2012]

There are high expectations that the robot, which can be controlled remotely using a video-game controller, will take photos and record radiation levels inside reactor buildings that are inaccessible to humans. Equipped with belt-covered wheels similar to those of military tanks, the robot can mount slopes as steep as 60 degrees, according to the university.

Press Tour of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant in November 2011

Reporting from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant during the first press tour there in November 2011, Martin Fackler wrote in the New York Times, “The most striking feature at this crippled plant on Saturday was not the blasted-out reactor buildings, or the makeshift tsunami walls, but the chaotic mess.The ground around the hulking reactor buildings was littered with mangled trucks, twisted metal beams and broken building frames, left mostly as they were after one of the world’s largest recorded earthquakes started a chain reaction that devastated the region and, to some extent, Japan. The damage reached the second story, a testament to the size of the tsunami that slammed into the reactor buildings, which sit 33 feet above the sea. [Source: Martin Fackler, New York Times, November 12, 2011]

In a country as orderly as Japan, the fact that the scene has changed so little since the early days of the disaster eight months ago is as telling a sign as any of the daunting tasks workers have faced as they struggled to regain control of the plant’s three badly damaged reactors. Untended plants outside an abandoned florist were withered, and dead. Crows had taken over a gas station. The dosimeters of the journalists on the bus buzzed constantly, recording levels that ticked up with each passing mile: 0.7 microsieverts in Naraha, at the edge of the evacuation zone, 1.5 at Tomioka, where Bavarian-style gingerbread houses had served as the welcome center for Fukushima Daiichi. It was there that Japanese visitors to the site were told a myth perpetuated over decades in Japan: that nuclear power is absolutely safe.

The level recorded just outside the center Saturday was 13 times the recommended maximum annual dosage for civilians. At the plant, journalists, outfitted in full contamination suits, were kept aboard the bus in recognition of the much higher radiation levels there. The company’s minders on the bus were eager to show off one of its major accomplishments so far: the completion of a huge superstructure built over reactor No. 1, designed to trap radioactive materials. The company said a similar cap would soon be built over the heavily damaged No. 3 reactor.

The tour guides also pointed out a complex of large white tents that flew American, French and Japanese flags and housed a massive system built by companies from those countries for decontaminating water. The water is part of a new cooling system that Tepco says has finally reduced the temperatures in the damaged reactor cores below 100 degrees Celsius, a necessary step to achieving what is known as “cold shutdown.” The system replaced the desperate cooling measures taken after the ordinary system was knocked out by the tsunami, when fire trucks poured water onto the reactors in an effort to keep them from overheating and melting down even further than they had.

Dozens of those fire trucks were still at the plant on Saturday, as was a field full of newly constructed four-story-tall silver tanks to house much of the 90,000 tons of contaminated water that had been dumped on the reactors. That number helps explain the enormity of what happened at Fukushima — and the challenges ahead. Another figure that tells the story: so far, Tepco has stored 480,000 sets of used protective clothing, discarded after each use by workers. Another big problem t is the fact that TEPCO does not know the exact condition of the fuel within the No. 1 and No. 3 reactors, whose cores appear to have melted through the inner containment vessels.

During the plant tour, the bus kept moving at the most contaminated areas near the base of the reactors to limit the time there and, thus, the radiation exposure. As it did, a radiation detector on the bus jumped to 300 microsieverts per hour — high enough to reach the annual recommended maximum dosage in just over three hours. The only humans visible in the plant were groups of workers in white hazmat suits and red or yellow hard hats. They appeared oddly out of place among the quiet pine forests over much of the plant’s grounds, populated still by dragonflies.

Caution was on full display at the only building within the plant where protective clothing is not needed. Visiting journalists passed through a series of rooms where teams of workers systematically cut off the layers of protective clothing with scissors. The discarding is done in stages to limit contamination; booties come off in one room, the full body suit in another. Inside the center, the walls are covered with strings of paper cranes — the symbol of wishes to be granted, in this case the safety of the plant’s brave workers and the resolution of the crisis. There are also posters covered with autographs and words of encouragement. “Hang in there,” says one. “For Fukushima, for Japan and for the world.”

Image Sources: TEPCO

Text Sources: New York Times, Yomiuri Shimbun, Daily Yomiuri, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Kyodo News, National Geographic, The Guardian. Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2014

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