May 27, 2014
The world’s press has reported that 650 emergency workers fled Fukushima Daiichi on March 15, 2011, fearing for their lives. It is also alleged that they disregarded the orders of their plant manager Masao Yoshida. However, this seems to be another example of the news media “spinning” the facts in order to present the most sensational point of view possible. In fact, it might be a tempest in a teapot.
On March 15, it appeared to F. Daiichi management that the situation was finally coming under control. All of the damaged cores were being cooled with seawater and the possibility of additional hydrogen explosions was nearly zero. There were more than 700 people at the plant site who had been combatting the situation for nearly five days. They needed a break. Plus, Yoshida’s staff had to decide upon subsequent mitigation efforts. It was decided that seventy of the workers would be needed to insure that conditions at the station would be maintained. Keeping the rest of the workers in the higher radiation fields would cause them un-necessary exposures while they waited for further orders. Thus, Yoshida decided to move un-necessary personnel to low exposure locations within the plant property boundary.
Yoshida’s order to withdraw to low-level locations seems to have been misunderstood. The workers were loaded on busses and driven to the Fukushima Daini station, 10 kilometers south of F. Daiichi. Some actually drove their own cars. Actually, the misunderstanding provided the temporarily un-needed staff with the lowest possible exposures and the best place to rest and recover from the exhaustion caused by five days of intense emergency efforts.
But, this is not the way the scenario has been portrayed by the Press. The New York Times ran their story under the headline “Panicked Workers Fled Fukushima Plant in 2011 Despite Orders, Record Shows”. The Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s widest-read source of antinuclear angst, headlined “90% of TEPCO workers defied orders, fled Fukushima plant in 2011”. In both cases, inferences of a cover-up by Tepco are obvious. The NY Times article says, “If true, the account challenges earlier descriptions of the day’s events that portrayed the plant’s operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, or Tepco, as having evacuated all but a small number of highly dedicated workers.” The Asahi says, “Tokyo Electric Power Company…has never mentioned the orders Yoshida issued on March 15, 2011.” NY Times affiliate, the Japan Times, makes it seem the government was complicit in the cover-up under the provocative headline “Government silent on report Fukushima No. 1 workers fled during crisis”. This is because Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga declined comment by saying, “We don’t know what the Asahi Shimbun has obtained and we can’t say its contents are identical to those the government has.”
The uproar started with the Asahi Shimbun getting a copy of Masao Yoshida’s complete testimony given to the Japanese Diet (congress) during the Nuclear Accident Independent Investigative Committee’s (NAIIC) inquiry into the accident. It supposedly covers more than 400 pages. During the testimony, Yoshia said “In fact, I didn’t tell them to go to 2F [F. Daini]. I thought I gave the order to temporarily evacuate to a location where radiation levels were low near the [Fukushima Daiichi] plant and await further instructions.”
To add insult to injury, the Asahi strongly suggests that Yoshida’s withdrawal “order” was ill-advised. The upper two stories of the unit #4 reactor building had exploded on March 15, and a loud thudding sound had been heard from inside unit #2 concurrent with the unit #4 blast. The Asahi adds that pressure had suddenly dropped in unit #2 for an unknown reason. To the Asahi, these two events made it seem that the accident was not coming under control and Yoshida’s decision to remove 650 workers from the site was misguided.
The skewed reporting was further exacerbated by quoting a former senior Asahi writer and current chairman of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation who feels the government has not done its job to protect the public by insuring that panicked workers never do this again. He said, “This country operated nuclear plants without such systems. And the situation still hasn’t changed yet. [Japan] is still unable to draw up a [contingency] plan to deal with the worst-case scenario.”
For perspective, let’s try to put ourselves in the shoes of the F. Daiichi workers ordered to withdraw to lower radiation exposure locations. Yoshida told them to go where the radiation levels were low. No specific location seems to have been suggested in the order itself. The entire F. Daiichi plant site had elevated radiation levels due to the three hydrogen explosions and subsequent uncontrolled releases of airborne radioactive isotopes. The F. Daini station did not suffer meltdowns was not in the airborne plume path coming from F. Daiichi. Thus, it makes sense for the workers to have assumed that Yoshida meant for them to withdraw to F. Daini. In fact, the Asahi mentions that Yoshida never blamed the workers for doing what they did! Further, Tepco’s response to the Asahi’s inquiry on the matter fully supports Yoshida, “Evacuating temporarily to the No. 2 plant [F. Daini] was not a violation of regulations because Yoshida’s order left open the possibility of leaving for the No.2 plant if there were no locations at the No. I plant [F. Daiichi] where radiation levels were low.”
Thus it seems that the workers who withdrew from F. Daiichi on March 15 did not “flee” in mortal fear. At the time, they apparently felt they were following orders. Let’s face it…if they actually fled in mortal terror, why did each and every one of them show up at F. Daini? If there was actually a death-fearing panic, at least a few would have bolted to some location outside the [then] 20 kilometer evacuation radius mandated by Tokyo, and not have placed themselves in a position to be ordered back to F. Daiichi. There was no panic, the workers did not flee in terror, and the press is making a mountain out of a mole-hill.