‘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

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Asking the tough questions on Fukushima — The Japan Times

” In January, regional newspaper Fukushima Minpo interviewed Yosuke Takagi, state minister of economy, trade and industry. While talking about reconstruction plans for areas near the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, Takagi mentioned resurrecting Dash-mura (Dash Village), a farm created from scratch by boy band Tokio for its Nippon TV series “The Tetsuwan Dash.”

The location of Dash-mura was always secret, lest Tokio’s fans descend on the project and destroy its rustic purity. But following the reactor accident caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake, it was revealed that the farm was in an area declared off-limits due to its proximity to the plant. It was promptly abandoned.

A different news outlet, Fukushima Minyu, clarified that the revival of Dash-mura is “nothing more than a personal idea of Takagi’s,” but that he intends to discuss it with related parties. An 80-year-old farmer who once worked with Tokio on the project told Minyu that bringing back the farm would be a great PR boost for the area’s agriculture, which is obviously Takagi’s aim. The show’s producer, however, after hearing of Takagi’s comment, tweeted that he knew nothing about the news, adding cryptically that “Dash-mura is no one’s thing.”

The Huffington Post called the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry to ask if it had any intention of reviving Dash-mura. A representative only “confirmed” that Takagi had “made such a comment” and said METI had no “definite plan” to that end but might “study it.”

Nevertheless, the idea fits in with the government’s goal of getting former residents to move back to the area. Last week, authorities announced they would further reduce the evacuation zone at the end of the month, which means it will have shrunk by 70 percent since April 2014. The concern is that few people want to return. Some have already made lives for themselves elsewhere and see a lack of opportunity in their old communities.

Many also remain suspicious of the government’s assurances that radioactivity has dropped to a safe level. There is still debate among experts as to whether or not the radiation in the area is dangerous. The government says that the problems caused by the accident are now “under control,” and affected residents can soon go back to their old lives.

One media outlet who has challenged this assumption is TV Asahi’s “Hodo Station.” On March 9, the nightly news show sent its main announcer, Yuta Tomikawa, to Iitate, a village located about 40 km from the crippled nuclear facility. All 6,000 residents were eventually evacuated after the accident.

Standing in front of rows of black plastic bags, Tomikawa reported that, according to the government, decontamination efforts have been a success. A safe annual radiation level is 1 millisievert, but a local dairy farmer told Tomikawa that his own readings showed five times that level, adding that 70 percent of Iitate is wooded and forest land had not been decontaminated yet.

Moreover, the government is lifting the evacuation order for any areas where annual radiation levels are “no more than” 20 mSv. The International Commission on Radiological Protection told the government that once the situation had stabilized in the affected areas, people could return if radiation dropped to between 1 and 20 mSv, but the lower the better. Exposure to 20 mSv for a short period may not be a problem, but it could have harmful effects in the long run.

Tomikawa did not say that people who returned to Iitate would be in danger, but he did imply that the government is manipulating numbers in an attempt to persuade evacuees to return to their homes.

The web magazine Litera wrote that TV Asahi is the only mainstream media outlet to question the government line in this regard. Actually, Nippon TV did something similar, albeit indirectly. Last month, it rebroadcasted an episode of its “NNN Document” series about the married manzai (stand-up comedy) duo Oshidori Mako-Ken’s efforts to come to terms with the Fukushima meltdowns and their aftermath.

The couple belongs to the large Osaka-based entertainment company Yoshimoto Kogyo, but ever since the disaster Mako has attended about 500 related news conferences, making a nuisance of herself by plying Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings employees and government officials with questions the mainstream media don’t usually ask.

In order to gain access to the news conferences, she offered stories to the weekly magazine Spa! Her editor there told Nippon TV that Mako is now respected or resented by a lot of full-time journalists, partly because she’s a geinojin (entertainer) who has proved her mettle as a reporter, but mainly because of her hard-line queries, which put her interlocutors on the spot.

Following the disaster, Mako became suspicious when she saw people fleeing Tokyo in large numbers but heard nothing about it on the news. In order to make sense of the situation she’d watch unfiltered news conferences about the disaster on the internet. She realized only independent reporters asked tough questions, so she started attending them herself as a proxy for average people who didn’t understand what was going on. The more officials obfuscated, the more she studied.

She’s now recognized by some foreign press as one of the most informed persons on the subject — she even received a letter of encouragement from Pope Francis — and yet she’s shunned by the Japanese press. Nevertheless, she has dedicated followers, including workers cleaning up the reactor who often feed her questions to ask of officials. She’s won awards for her work, but from citizens groups, not media groups.

Nowadays, Mako and Ken do more free lectures on Fukushima No. 1 than they do comedy shows. One of their main themes is that media reports tend to confuse the public rather than inform them, but that’s really the fault of the government, which would like nothing better than for people to feel as if nothing ever happened. ”

by Philip Brasor, The Japan Times

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Evacuation lifted for Fukushima village; only 10% preparing return — The Asahi Shimbun

” The government on June 12 lifted the evacuation order for Katsurao, a village northwest of the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, but most of the residents appear reluctant to return home.

The lifting of the order covers more than 90 percent of the households in Katsurao. The entire village was ordered to evacuate after the crisis at the Fukushima plant started to unfold on March 11, 2011.

Katsurao is the fourth municipality in Fukushima Prefecture that had the evacuation order lifted, following the Miyakoji district in Tamura, the eastern area of Kawauchi village and Naraha.

Government officials said cleanup and other efforts have reduced radiation levels in Katsurao to a point that poses little problem. The lifting of the evacuation order means that 1,347 people from 418 households, out of 1,466 people from 451 households in Katsurao, can return to their homes to live in the village.

But only 126 people from 53 households, or 10 percent of those eligible to return, have signed up for a program for extended stays in the village to prepare for their return, according to Katsurao officials.

The officials said they believe that many evacuees would rather go back and forth between temporary housing and their homes in Katsurao for the time being, given the situation in the village.

Medical institutions and shops have yet to resume operations in Katsurao. And nearly half of the rice paddies there are being used for the temporary storage of radioactive waste produced in the cleanup operation.

Local officials say they have no idea when the waste can be moved out of the village for permanent storage.

Among the Katsurao residents eligible to return are those with homes in the government-designated “residence restricted zone,” where the annual radiation dose was projected at more than 20 millisieverts and up to 50 millisieverts as of March 2012.

This was the first time evacuees from such a zone have been permitted to return home.

Only the “difficult-to-return zone” carries a higher annual radiation dose.

The government plans to lift evacuation orders for other parts of the prefecture by the end of March 2017, except for the “difficult-to-return zone,” where the annual radiation dose was estimated at 50 millisieverts or higher as of March 2012.

The additional lifting of the evacuation orders would allow 46,000 of 70,000 displaced residents to return to their homes to live. ”

by Makoto Takada and Yuri Oiwa

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Fukushima’s record decreasing rate of population causing gender gap, census shows — The Asahi Shimbun

” FUKUSHIMA–Fukushima Prefecture’s population has declined by 5.7 percent since 2010, its largest recorded drop and the cause of a widening gender gap in some areas, according to national census figures announced on Dec. 25.

The population drop is mainly due to ongoing evacuations following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, according to the preliminary figures released by the prefectural government.

The prefecture lost 39,715 men and 75,743 women, a decrease of 4 percent and 7.3 percent from 2010, respectively. The difference is thought to have been caused partly by the majority male presence in reconstruction efforts.

A prefectural government official said the diminishing population is “attributable to a considerable number of people who have evacuated to places outside Fukushima Prefecture.”

On the gap between the male and female populations in some municipalities, the official said, “I assume that most of the workers who relocate themselves to these municipalities for the purpose of carrying out work related to nuclear power plants and reconstruction efforts are male, but many of the evacuees are female.”

The national census figures are the first released by the prefectural government since the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, which triggered the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

Fukushima prefecture’s population as of Oct. 1 stood at 1,913,606, down 115,458, or 5.7 percent, from the last census in 2010.

Among the six towns and villages where the entire population has left under evacuation orders, four towns recorded zero inhabitants: Okuma and Futaba, which co-host the nuclear plant, and nearby Tomioka and Namie.

The village of Katsurao had 18 people who have returned to their homes after being evacuated. They are recorded as temporary residents, but the central government is working to make their resettlement permanent. Katsurao’s evacuation order is scheduled to be lifted next spring.

Naraha, where an evacuation order was lifted on Sept. 5, also experienced a massive decrease in its population, with 976 people living in the area, down 6,724 people, or 87.3 percent, from 2010. The figures illustrate the fact that few evacuees have opted to return home.

The town of Hirono, where a large portion of the population is involved in nuclear reactor decommissioning work, tallied a male population of 2,746, up 2.3 percent from 2010. The female population, on the other hand, was about half that figure at 1,577, down 42.3 percent.

The population figures are based on the number of people living in the prefecture as of Oct. 1, irrespective of whether they are registered as local citizens.

In areas where entry is restricted due to high levels of radiation from the nuclear accident, municipal employees and police officers were deployed to survey the population for the census. ”

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Suicides rise among Fukushima nuclear disaster evacuees — The Asahi Shimbun

” Disaster-related suicides in Fukushima Prefecture have surged this year, with prolonged evacuation from the nuclear accident and uncertainty about returning home or leading normal lives suspected as the main causes.

Nineteen suicides in Fukushima Prefecture from January to the end of November have been tied to the March 2011 triple disaster, up from 15 for all of last year, according to statistics compiled by the Cabinet Office.

Over the same period this year, one disaster-related suicide was recorded in Miyagi and two in Iwate, the two other prefectures that were most heavily damaged nearly five years ago by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.

Local police determined if a suicide was related to the disaster and subsequent evacuation after talking to bereaved family members.

Suicide statistics in the three prefectures compiled since June 2011 showed that the situation among evacuees is much more despondent in Fukushima Prefecture than in Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, according to the Cabinet Office section in charge of dealing with suicides.

So far, a total of 154 suicides have been linked to the disaster in the three prefectures until the end of November 2015. More than half of the deaths were people who lived in Fukushima Prefecture before the disaster struck.

Between June and December 2011, the suicide numbers were 22 in Miyagi Prefecture and 17 in Iwate Prefecture. Fukushima Prefecture recorded 10 in that period.

However, the numbers for Iwate and Miyagi prefectures have subsequently declined while the figure for Fukushima Prefecture has been at least 10 a year.

Many disaster victims in Iwate and Miyagi prefectures have been able to return to their hometowns to lead comparatively normal lives.

But evacuation orders remain for six municipalities in the vicinity of the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant and parts of three other local governments in the prefecture.

As of November, about 24,000 people in Iwate and about 55,000 in Miyagi were living in temporary housing away from their homes. In Fukushima, the number was about 103,000.

“The problems facing Fukushima disaster victims become more complicated as time passes,” said Masaharu Maeda, a professor of disaster psychiatry at Fukushima Medical University.

He pointed to differences among evacuees from areas where evacuation orders have been lifted.

“The elderly may return to their homes, but the generation who are still raising children do not return, meaning families are torn apart,” Maeda said. “There is a need to increase the number of people who have specialized knowledge to help provide support to disaster victims through improved care.”

Cabinet Office officials conducted a survey on the reasons for 80 suicides in Fukushima that were identified as disaster-related by police, who talked to bereaved family members.

The most common cause was health problems, found in 42 cases, followed by economic and lifestyle woes for 16 people and family problems for 14. In some cases, more than one motive was included.

The central government is considering lifting the evacuation order by March 2017 for districts near the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant where residents are allowed to enter during the day.

But there is no indication when the evacuation order will be lifted for the remaining seven municipalities where airborne radiation levels are still high.

In 2014, the Fukushima Medical University conducted a survey of about 38,000 evacuees from areas where the evacuation order remains in place.

Close to 40 percent of respondents said they were concerned about the negative health effects in the future from exposure to radiation. Nearly 50 percent said they felt the radiation would have a negative impact on their children and grandchildren.

People concerned about radiation were more likely to suffer from depression, the survey showed.

Disaster victims in Fukushima were also found to be more likely to suffer from depression or post-traumatic stress disorders than people in Miyagi and Iwate prefectures. ”

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Return of swans a welcome sight in Fukushima town emptied by nuclear disaster — The Asahi Shimbun

” OKUMA, Fukushima Prefecture–A flock of swans have returned to this coastal Fukushima town to pass the winter, giving hope to residents who remain evacuated from Okuma since the disaster unfurled at the nearby Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in 2011.

At the mouth of the Kumagawa River in Okuma, located just 3 kilometers from the crippled plant, 17 swans have made it their winter haven since late November.

A volunteer patrol group comprising retired Okuma town officials feed the idyllic birds as part of their daily routine in the hopes that their return will herald that of all the approximately 10,000 evacuated residents.

“It is comforting to see these birds returning to this town as if nothing had happened here,” said Tsunemitsu Yokoyama, 63, one of the six members of the group, which calls itself the “old men’s squad.”

Dressed in protective suits, Yokoyama and another member of the group fed rice to the swans on Dec. 12 at the river’s mouth. A number of large concrete blocks from a breakwater that was wrecked by the towering tsunami triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011, remain scattered about the area.

After the triple meltdowns at the nuclear plant, a large portion of the town, which co-hosts the crippled plant with Futaba, was designated as difficult-to-return zones, forcing all residents to scatter across the country.

“I wish the town could reward these birds with a resident certificate or something because they are eager to live here instead of all of us,” said Yokoyama, the former chief of the town’s disaster recovery section. ”

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