‘Yoshida’s Dilemma: One Man’s Struggle to Avert Nuclear Catastrophe’: But for him, Fukushima could have been much worse — The Japan Times

” Disaster response, even at its most heroic, can fall to people who would rather be somewhere else.

So it was for Masao Yoshida, who, while helming the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant during the disaster in 2011, gave the groan, “Why does this happen on my shift?”

But in some ways Yoshida, an industry veteran of 32 years, was the right man to handle the crisis. His leadership during those days on the edge, at times in defiance of orders from the top of the utility that employed him, is at the center of Rob Gilhooly’s new book “Yoshida’s Dilemma: One Man’s Struggle to Avert Nuclear Catastrophe.”

Gilhooly writes from the eye of the storm, putting the reader in the plant’s control room with almost claustrophobic immediacy. One of his challenges was to render the emergency in real-time. How much can prose, moving forward in measured steps, convey a lethal technology unraveling in extremis? How do you convey the breakdown of machinery without getting mired in technical detail?

“It was difficult,” says Gilhooly, who spent almost four years researching and writing the book. “What struck me about the plant workers — it sounded like complete chaos. My decision was not to make it sound orderly. I wanted it to appear chaotic, without the writing becoming chaotic itself. I tore my hair out over the technical details, because I wanted the book to be readable.”

In the end, the book is a cumulative experience — an intense ride that rewards endurance. Gilhooly weaves in the history of nuclear energy in Japan, interviews with experts and re-created conversations among the plant workers.

“Yoshida was a straight talker from Osaka — a larger-than-life personality,” says Gilhooly, who interviewed the superintendent off the record. “He was different from the other superintendents, more prepared to stick his neck out. He was sharper, more bloody-minded. When tipping his hat to authority, he may have done so with a quietly raised middle finger.”

This attitude might have saved lives, when, after a hydrogen blast at the No. 1 plant, Tepco HQ in Tokyo ordered staff to evacuate. Yoshida knew that the executives had little idea of what was actually happening at the plant. Going behind the backs of his superiors, he contacted then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan, insisting that leaving the plant would be reckless. The utility also ordered that seawater not be pumped through the reactor as coolant, since that would render it useless for energy generation in the future. Exposed to life-threatening levels of radiation, Yoshida and his team defied the order, scrambling to cool the overheating reactor with seawater.

The desperate move worked. The team managed to cool the reactor, and later the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, which was authorized by the Diet, concluded in its report that “(Yoshida’s) disregard for corporate instructions was possibly the only reason that the reactor cores didn’t explode.”

In Western media coverage of the Fukushima disaster, much was made of Japanese groupthink. A culturally ingrained obedience and a reluctance to question authority was blamed in part for the disaster. Still, the responses vary, and some staff put safety concerns over company loyalty.

“I didn’t want to editorialize,” says Gilhooly, who writes with a calm, thoughtful voice, avoiding the temptation of melodrama. “But yes, Yoshida — and others — refuted the stereotype that was used to explain parts of the disaster.”

Gilhooly is talking to a Japanese publisher, but thinks a translated version may prove difficult: His sources spoke freely about the events at the plant assuming the interviews wouldn’t be published in Japanese. Still, Gilhooly, who takes a stand in the book against using nuclear energy, hopes to fuel the ongoing debate in his adopted home.

“I just wanted to know the truth,” he says. “There is a discussion that needs to happen about nuclear power — about disaster un-preparedness in Japan. I wanted to contribute to that argument. It’s six years on and already we are airbrushing some things out.”

The book points out the gulf between rural Fukushima and the large cities consuming the energy it produced. Gilhooly talked to Atsufumi Yoshizawa, Yoshida’s deputy at the plant, who recalled the first home leave with his boss, a month after the disaster:

“Tokyo was … as though nothing had happened. They were selling things as usual, women were walking around with high heels and makeup as usual, while we didn’t even have our own clothes (which had been contaminated). I remember thinking, ‘What the hell is this? How can it be so different?’ I realized just how useless it would be to try and explain the situation at the plant to these people, what we had been through and the fear we had faced.”

It is a punch in the gut, then, to read about Yoshida’s death from esophageal cancer at age 58, just two years after his exposure to radiation. It’s one of the many elements of the Fukushima crisis that stirs anger, demanding a change that honors the lessons and sacrifice.

Gilhooly points out that, unlike Yoshida in the stricken plant, Japan has the chance to make positive choices about the future, choices that should be informed by the suffering in Fukushima.

“We should think more about how we use energy,” he concludes. “There are things we can do better, with small changes in lifestyle.” ”

by Nicolas Gattig, The Japan Times



Did Japan learn its lessons from Fukushima quake and tsunami? One US expert suggests they did not — South China Morning Post

” Lack of full-time, permanent, professional disaster management staff remain weaknesses. “

” A former US government expert on emergency management has questioned whether Japan is applying the lessons from the 2011 massive earthquake and tsunami in its northeast to its response to the recent temblors in Kumamoto Prefecture.

Leo Bosner, 69, who worked for the US Federal Emergency Management Agency for 29 years, is concerned that an integrated response may not have been in place in Japan for the quakes that jolted the south-western prefecture a month ago.

“I discovered many problems” when studying “Japan’s disastrous response” to the 2011 calamity and “I have not really heard of any major improvements,” he told Kyodo News in a recent interview. “So I am a little concerned that these problems may be continuing.”

“It is too early to make a definitive evaluation of the response to the Kumamoto disaster, but recent news headlines have indicated possible problem areas,” he said, identifying such areas as questions about the use of the US military’s Osprey aircraft to language barriers for foreigners.

Bosner said the existence of no unified system for major disaster response in Japan could cause even the best-intended efforts to bog down.

“For example, various towns, prefectures and organisations may send food and other supplies to a disaster area, but if there is a shortage of people at the disaster site to sort out and distribute the supplies, the supplies don’t get distributed to those in need in a timely manner,” he said.

He also cited Japan’s lack of full-time, permanent, professional disaster management staff and of a strong connection between the governmental and non-governmental response to disasters as other big problems.

“One thing to me that is a major barrier is that in the Japan government offices, people change the job every two years…so there is no time to build up an expertise,” he said.

“I really think that if the Japanese government wants to do a strong job in disasters, they need to somehow establish a permanent staff who will stay involved over the years,” he said.

“In Japan, because everything is so spread out in the government and not working together, in my view, it is very inefficient,” he said. “I think if Japan could centralise this function more, it would be cheaper.”

Bosner also proposed transferring officials in or between the central and regional governments while always working as disaster management specialists.

“My thought was, ‘What if some worked in the Japan national government in Tokyo for two years as a disaster planner?’ But then let’s say when he rotated he would go to some other industry but would still be a disaster planner in that industry and then maybe if he rotated to a prefecture to a city, he would be a disaster planner in that prefecture or that city.”

“If they did this, in about five or 10 years, Japan would have a real network of experienced disaster planners who understood the system and could work together. But right now they don’t have this.”

He said the United States integrated all the functions to respond to disasters into Fema and turned a weak agency into one that properly works.

The administration of President Bill Clinton turned Fema around, but that of George W. Bush downsized it, which backfired later when Hurricane Katrina hit the southern part of the United States in 2005.

“Under the Bush administration, very honestly, he just appointed political friends to be in charge of Fema who did not know anything about disasters.”

“So when Katrina came, they could not give the orders, they could not make the decisions, they did not know what to do. It was terrible. For those of us who worked at Fema, it was so disappointing because we were helpless.”

Bosner said that if there is “a political will” rather than increased budgets, Japan will be able to have a better system to respond to disasters just as the United States did.

“In Japan, there are plenty of people, in my view, who would be excellent for running a Japan Fema or managing it…if the ministers of the Cabinet of the prime minister agree and say, ‘We must do this’,” he said. “But until they make that decision, nothing can happen.”

Bosner served as an emergency management expert at Fema from 1979 to 2008. He stayed in Japan from 2000 to 2001 studying that country’s emergency management system. His current job includes being an adjunct lecturer in the Emergency Medical Systems Graduate School of Tokyo’s Kokushikan University. “


End the nuclear ‘safety myth’ — The Japan Times editorial

” The International Atomic Energy Agency’s final report on the March 2011 triple meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant puts the main blame on the then prevailing assumption that Japan’s “nuclear power plants were so safe that an accident of this magnitude was simply unthinkable.” Constant monitoring is needed to make sure the government, power companies and nuclear regulatory authorities aren’t falling into the same “safety myth” as they push to reactivate idled reactors that meet what is now touted as the “world’s most stringent” nuclear safety standards.

Last week, Kyushu Electric Power Co. began commercial operation of the No. 1 reactor of its Sendai nuclear power plant in Satsumasendai, Kagoshima Prefecture — a little over a month after it became the first reactor idled since 2011 to be reactivated on the basis of the safety standards that were tightened in response to the Fukushima disaster. The utility plans to restart the plant’s No. 2 reactor as early as next month, and the Abe administration and the power industry are pushing to bring more idled plants back online once they have cleared the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s screening.

The regulatory system for nuclear power generation has been reformed since the 2011 crisis. The old Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, which came under fire for the Fukushima debacle, has been replaced by the NRA, and new regulations introduced in 2013 require operators of nuclear power plants to beef up their defense against natural disasters such as major earthquakes and tsunamis. But while the NRA itself states that compliance with the new standards does not guarantee the plants’ safety, the government says the plants are ready for restart because they meet the NRA criteria. No one appears ready to take final responsibility for the plants’ safety.

The IAEA report, compiled by around 180 experts from 42 countries and submitted to an annual general conference of the United Nations nuclear watchdog this week, highlights the “assumption” held by Japan’s nuclear plant operators prior to 2011 that a crisis of that magnitude would not happen, which was never challenged by the government or regulatory authorities, leaving the nation unprepared for a severe accident.

The Fukushima power plant lost its emergency power supply after it was flooded by a 15-meter tsunami triggered by the magnitude-9 quake on March 11, 2011. The loss of power crippled its crucial core-cooling functions and led to the meltdowns in its three operating reactors. Citing Tepco’s failure to take precautionary action against such external hazards despite an estimate prior to the disaster that a powerful quake off Fukushima could cause a tsunami of roughly the same scale that hit the plant site, the report said “there was not sufficient consideration of low probability, high consequence external events,” partly because “of the basic assumption in Japan, reinforced over many decades, that the robustness of the technical design of the nuclear plants would provide sufficient protection against postulated risks.” This assumption led to “a tendency for organizations and their staff not to challenge the level of safety” and “resulted in a situation where safety improvements were not introduced promptly.”

The report also pointed to the deficiencies in Japan’s nuclear regulatory system behind the Fukushima disaster. “The regulation of nuclear safety in Japan at the time of the accident was performed by a number of organizations with different roles and responsibilities and complex interrelationships. It was not fully clear which organizations had the responsibility and authority to issue binding instructions on how to respond to safety issues without delay,” it said. “The regulations, guidelines and procedures in place at the time of the accident were not fully in line with international practice in some key areas, most notably in relation to periodic safety reviews, re-evaluation of hazards, severe accident management and safety culture.”

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano, in his foreword to the report, says Japan’s regulatory system has since been reformed to meet international standards, with regulators given clearer responsibilities and greater authority. Whether the new plant safety standards are the world’s most stringent or not, plants that meet the standards are supposed to withstand much greater levels of external hazards and be better able to respond to emergencies than before.

Still, complacency under the new standards would risk reviving the same safety myth rebuked in the report. Questioning whether the tightened standards are sufficient could be branded as demanding zero tolerance of risks and thereby unrealistic. However, as the IAEA report points out, it was an “unlikely combination of events” that hit the Tepco plant, and the utility’s unpreparedness for such a situation that resulted in the 2011 disaster.

We need to consider whether the tendency to dismiss low-probability risks as “small enough” — as was, for example, the risk of Kyushu Electric’s Sendai plant being hit by a volcanic eruption when the go-ahead was given for its restart — is acceptable from the viewpoint of preventing severe accidents at nuclear plants in the future. ”


Hopelessness reigned after Tepco said Fukushima crisis ‘out of control’ — The Asahi Shimbun

” One of the darkest hours in the Fukushima nuclear disaster came very early on when plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. said the situation was out of control.

After hearing this, nuclear experts and government officials gathered at the prime minister’s office in Tokyo got ready to throw in the towel, even though the plant manager was on-site and standing firm.

In interview with The Asahi Shimbun, Goshi Hosono, a special adviser to Naoto Kan, the prime minister at that time, conveyed the utter panic and hopelessness that gripped people in the room.

TEPCO executives said the nuclear reactors “are now out of control” as signs emerged of major damage to the No. 2 reactor’s containment vessel. From that point, it seemed the only recourse would be to evacuate all plant workers as quickly as possible as a meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 plant became inevitable.

Hosono’s account offers the most complete picture to date of the helplessness that raged as the enormity of the disaster became apparent early on March 15, 2011, four days after the earthquake and tsunami that triggered the crisis.

TEPCO officials became hugely alarmed around 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., when the pressure inside the reactor containment vessel started shooting up, prompting them to state that things are “out of control.”

But then the courageous words of plant manager Masao Yoshida, who had spoken to Hosono just the day before, sprang to mind. Yoshida, who was in charge of dealing with the on-site situation, had boldly told Hosono, “I will do my best and stand firm.”

Several senior executives from TEPCO headquarters arrived at the prime minister’s office. They included Ichiro Takekuro, who was serving in a liaison capacity, and Susumu Kawamata, general manager of TEPCO’s Nuclear Quality & Safety Management Department.

Hosono said the remark about the situation being out of control “was not made by a specific individual, but rather as a team of TEPCO members.”

“It was shocking to hear the words ‘out of control’ from TEPCO. With nuclear experts saying the situation was out of control, there was no way I could tell them to keep it under control.”

But Hosono was not in a quitting mood and tried to shake them out of their pessimism.

“I told TEPCO, ‘Experts should be able to say something even in a situation like this. It’s not the time to be low spirited. We have to do something, so just try to come up with a plan,’ I told them strongly.”

No one seemed to have anything meaningful to offer. Other nuclear experts who were present at the office, like Haruki Madarame, chairman of the Nuclear Safety Commission, shared the same mind-set with TEPCO that all options had run out in containing the disaster.

“With nothing we could do, we felt an overpowering sense of helplessness,” Hosono recalled.

A full-withdrawal of all workers from the plant would mean that TEPCO had given up any hope of averting a full-scale disaster.

“Overall, we all thought the withdrawal had to be stopped no matter what, but we didn’t have anything to back up our belief. How do we do this … ? With TEPCO saying there was nothing they could do, we were consumed by hopelessness,” said Hosono.

The members gathered at the prime minister’s office were unable to reach an agreement on the level of withdrawal from the facility. But Hosono advised Kan to trust Yoshida, rather than TEPCO, when reaching his final decision.

In the end, Kan told TEPCO President Masataka Shimizu the same day that he would not allow the company to pull out all its workers.

* * *

The following is what Fukushima plant manager Masao Yoshida told a government inquiry panel about the situation at the stricken facility on March 14-15, 2011:

“It’s because the water, it isn’t going in. If water can’t go in, the fuel, it’s just going to melt away.”

“It could be plutonium, it could be something else, but all substances amounting from the fuel are going to be released. It’s going to be a much more serious matter than the current cesium situation because all the radioactive substances are going to be released and dispersed outside. We’re imagining the collapse of eastern Japan.”

“The situation is going to be more than a Chernobyl-class disaster, maybe not exactly like the film ‘The China Syndrome,’ but more like that. Then, we’ll have to stop pumping water into the No. 1 and No. 3 reactors as well.” “


*Editorial: Startling Fukushima testimony raises grave questions — The Asahi Shimbun

” When faced with a life-threatening crisis, humans do not necessarily behave according to set rules. Some will do anything to save their skins. Without factoring in this possibility, is it ever possible to design something that is guaranteed to be safe?

We raise the issue because of a document that recently came to light. It is a record of statements made by Masao Yoshida, who was the manager of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant at the time of the March 2011 disaster. Yoshida died last July of esophageal cancer.

This valuable document covers exchanges Yoshida made when he was questioned by the government’s Investigation Committee on the Accident at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Stations of Tokyo Electric Power Co.

The document begs a fundamental question: Is it right to entrust operations of nuclear power plants to electric power companies that are private enterprises?

According to the document, Yoshida said that on March 15, four days after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami crippled the Fukushima No. 1 plant, fears were being voiced that the plant’s No. 2 reactor containment vessel was damaged or destroyed. At that most critical juncture, according to the document, about 90 percent of plant workers defied Yoshida’s orders and fled to the Fukushima No. 2 plant, about 10 kilometers away, to seek temporary refuge.

Doubts have always existed about the efficacy of disaster response measures at nuclear power plants. Would any utility really order its workers to risk their lives and keep performing their duties? How many workers would the utility be able to continue to secure during an accident? At Fukushima, these questions were no longer just theoretical.

The safety of commercial nuclear power plants today can be maintained only if plant operators deal appropriately with any mishap. The more serious the situation, the more people are needed to contain the crisis. But unlike Self-Defense Forces personnel, police officers and firefighters, who are all special-status government workers, nuclear power plant operators are private-sector workers.

The 50 or so workers who stayed at the Fukushima No. 1 plant while the crisis unfolded came to be called the “Fukushima 50” and were lauded around the world for their heroic dedication. But there is no guarantee such heroism will come into play when the next nuclear crisis occurs. The document raises grave questions.

Yet, Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, was reportedly not even aware of the document’s existence. We find it extremely hard to understand that the head of this organization, created to prevent a recurrence of nuclear crisis, was not familiar with all the details from the outset of the Fukushima disaster.

The possibility of plant workers deserting en masse during a crisis was not even raised during discussions last year on establishing new regulatory standards for nuclear power plants.

Yotaro Hatamura, an expert in the science of failures and former chairman of the government’s investigation committee on the Fukushima accident, stated in the overview of the investigation report: “Whatever may happen will happen. Whatever is thought to never happen will also happen.” Has nobody heeded Hatamura’s warning?

The government’s investigation committee interviewed 772 individuals in connection with the Fukushima disaster. There must be many valuable opinions that have yet to be made public.

TEPCO must reveal every aspect of the mass desertion, and waste no time in doing so. The utility cannot be entrusted with nuclear power plant operations so long as it refuses to face the issue head-on.

For its part, the government should disclose all investigation committee materials to the public and make every effort to ensure that people learn lessons from the Fukushima accident. In the absence of any such effort, we firmly oppose the restart of reactors that are currently off-line. ”