The man who saved Japan
Did Masao Yoshida and his small band of engineers save Japan from a nuclear crisis that could have forced the evacuation of millions of people?
It was the proverbial 3 a.m. telephone call, three days into the unfolding crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan in March 2011.
Then Prime Minister Naoto Kan was snatching sleep on the couch in his office when Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano woke him with the news that the utility in charge of the plant, Tokyo Electric Power Co., was abandoning the stricken facility.
Fearful that this would entail a massive evacuation of northern Japan and possibly Tokyo, Kan’s instinctive first reaction was to call Masao Yoshida, the superintendent at the plant site about a three-hour drive northeast of the capital.
Yoshida assured him that the report was not true. “There are still some things that we can do,” he told the premier. This was as explosions blew out reactor buildings at the plant, crippled by an earthquake and tsunami, and as fears grew that reactors had started to melt down.
Two days earlier, Kan had flown to the plant by helicopter to inspect the accident site first hand. During a 20-minute meeting with Yoshida, he sized him up as a man he could trust in the crisis, especially as the prime minister rapidly lost faith in Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) executives.
Almost nobody associated with the Fukushima disaster came out of it looking good, not Kan, not the regulators (such as they were), and certainly not the executives at Tepco’s downtown headquarters.
The exception was Yoshida, often touted as the “hero” of the Fukushima disaster, although he was too modest to claim the title for himself.
Yoshida is the central figure in a new book on the nuclear meltdowns called Yoshida’s Dilemma, One Man’s Struggle to Avert a Nuclear Catastrophe by Rob Gilhooly, a Japan-based journalist and photographer.
Gilhooly’s book is the best and most comprehensive account of the nuclear disaster in English so far (a Japanese translation is under discussion). Much of the subject matter is technical, but the author is skillful enough to make it readable and accessible to the general reader.
In writing the book Gilhooly drew on interviews with officials at the nuclear plant, extensive visits to the Fukushima area and the plant site, as well as three comprehensive government and private investigations into the accident.
It is not clear from the book whether he interviewed Yoshida on-the-record. Yoshida was known to avoid the limelight and gave very few interviews. He’s not mentioned in the book’s acknowledgements.
Yoshida took early retirement in late 2011 after being diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He died in July, 2013. The illness is not thought to have been linked to radiation exposure.
Even former PM Kan lamented, “I wish I had had the chance to talk to him at length about the nuclear disaster.” It is rather astonishing that possibly the two key players in the nuclear tragedy never really compared notes.
Yoshida did give one rare interview to a counselor from Kyoto who had earned his gratitude by treating and counseling workers who faced social ostracism and other problems because they worked at Fukushima.
The only time during the interview that Yoshida showed much emotion was when he denied ordering any abandonment of the plant. That is a question that has lingered over the Fukushima story even after his death.
In 2014 the Asahi newspaper published and then retracted a story that Yoshida had ordered the 700 or so plant workers to leave the site.
Yoshida explained to a government investigation committee that he had ordered the evacuation of nonessential personnel from the plant, but kept back 50 to 60 engineering staff to tackle the cascading disaster and at no time contemplated abandoning the plant on Japan’s Pacific coast.
He and his group of engineers became known as the “Fukushima 50” that risked their own lives to contain the calamity.
By most accounts, Yoshida, who had worked for Tepco for 32 years, was a typical Japanese company man, but he surmounted the stereotype in the way he handled the accident.
For example, massive amounts of water were being pumped into the damaged reactors for cooling and as all sources of fresh water were depleted at the site, Tepco executives ordered him not to use sea water as a replacement.
The executives, still apparently under the delusion that the reactors could be brought back into service some day, opposed salt water as it would have contaminated the reactors beyond all repair.
Yoshida ignored these orders from head office and ordered his plant workers to pump seawater into the damaged reactors. This was a critical decision at a critical moment in the disaster.
“Just keep pumping,” he told subordinates. “Pretend you didn’t hear me [tell Tepco executives he was pumping fresh water] and just keep pumping.”
The Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission established by the parliament later concluded that (Yoshida’s) disregard for corporate headquarters instructions was possibly the only reason that the reactor cores did not explode.
It was Masao Yoshida’s finest hour.