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03.20.11

Nuke Plant Workers Break Silence

The earth shook and the lights went dark. Radiation levels spiked. After days in isolation, two Japanese workers who escaped spoke on TV about chaos in the reactors. By Lennox Samuels.

Grateful and curious Japanese—and others beyond the nation’s borders­ as well—have clamored to hear the stories of the employees at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant who were on duty when a 9.0-magnitude earthquake shook the facility on March 11. But Japanese authorities quickly sequestered the men, treating them for injuries, emotional trauma and any radiation contamination. The nation traditionally is very strict about privacy laws. Sunday night, Japanese TV featured parts of interviews with two plant workers, never showing their faces.

One man said when the temblor struck he heard a “roaring sound” and felt a violent vibration—“I never felt like that before.” The lights failed immediately afterward and he was “terrified” when the tsunami came. “Everyone was drenched and I thought I would die.” He said the force toppled many machines in the facility and “it was hard to navigate around the reactor in the dark.” The plant gates, normally kept closed, were opened by Tokyo Electric Power Company, owner of the plant, and he and others were able to leave. The man remembered that he thought something was amiss when he saw smoke rising from the facility’s No. 1 reactor. An explosion rocked that reactor the following day.

“Those remaining are risking their lives to protect the plant they built.”

The second man was napping when the earthquake occurred some 80 miles off the coast and quickly battered buildings on land. The roof, 10 meters above him, started cracking and falling to the floor. “I was shocked because the plant was supposed to be safe,” he recalled. He characterized the next few minutes as “chaos.” “I knew I was in danger,” he said. Tensions rose, along with radiation levels—which spiked quickly. He said he learned that people who were working outside had high radiation readings. The numbers terrified him, he said. [TEPCO has said six workers were exposed to high levels of radiation, but continue to work there. The men apparently have been exposed to more than 100 millisieverts of radiation—the limit the government has set for working in the ongoing emergency operation at Fukushima Daiichi. The limit in normal circumstances is 50 millisieverts.] The second man told the interviewer his heart “aches” when he thinks of those still at the plant, undertaking what he called a “difficult task.” “Those remaining are risking their lives to protect the plant they built,” he said.

Lennox Samuels is a Newsweek/Daily Beast editor based in Bangkok. He covered the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.