Koichi Nakagawa* sometimes wonders if he should have bailed out on his friends and other employees at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear-power plant a lot earlier.
Maybe he should have left the day he worked to restore electricity to the plant wearing his regular work clothes while others wore hazmat suits. Or the day he watched as a pink mushroom cloud formed over the plant after Reactor Unit 3 blew up.
Or maybe he should have driven away on March 11, 2011, when he felt the earth move at 2:46 p.m. Hard pavement started undulating like waves on water, windows shattered, and a female employee was frantically shouting on the public-address system: “Please evacuate! Please evacuate!” Soon hundreds of workers rushed toward the headquarters where Nakagawa was standing petrified.
Forty minutes later, they watched as the entire ocean ebbed, only to be mesmerized minutes later as a 14-meter tsunami flooded the six reactors standing along Japan’s northeastern coast. The entire plant lost power, except the headquarters building.
Nakagawa could have evacuated that day—after all, he was a subcontractor who just happened to be at the plant conducting regular maintenance and inspections. But he thought his job would be in jeopardy if he left: “I couldn’t say no to them, because they’d give my company work in the future.”
Nakagawa and other workers also had no idea the reactors were in such a precarious state. Information wasn’t getting out to the workers in the plant amid the chaos following the earthquake and tsunami. Nakagawa says he wasn’t aware of the extent of the radiation levels where he was working in the days after the twin natural disasters turned into a nuclear disaster, until a Newsweek reporter pointed it out. “Really? Gee, I didn’t know that,” he says.
And finally, he didn’t want to look like a coward.
Instead, Nakagawa would become a hero, one of a group of workers dubbed the “Fukushima 50” by the global media in search of a cogent way to cover an indescribable tragedy. In the coming days and weeks, hundreds more would join the effort, living off packaged food and sleeping in jampacked conference rooms to deal with a crisis that would soon become the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.
Like the firefighters who rushed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, the workers were called the heroes of last year’s triple disasters, known as 3/11 in Japan. The international media quickly lionized them as the “faceless heroes” who stayed behind, and the Japanese press also latched onto the meme. But now in Japan, these men are mostly forgotten.
As the nation prepares for the first anniversary of the tsunami, the Japanese are preoccupied with radiation fears, the antinuclear debate, and bashing the operator of the Fukushima plant, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), for its response to the crisis. The workers who risked their lives remain faceless and nameless. Increasingly, they are also voiceless, because they fear being associated with the now-vilified power company if they speak about what went on in the plant. Six workers spoke to Newsweek on the condition that their real names not be used so they could provide a rare firsthand account of the fear and courage of these men—as well as describe what they consider unsafe practices during the initial stages of the recovery effort.
In the first 24 hours, Nakagawa and his crew cleared the rubble and debris at the plant, eventually making way for the elite firefighters from Tokyo who were ordered to douse the overheated reactors with water. When he returned to the headquarters building, he says it looked like the field hospital of a battered army. Halls were packed with exhausted workers chattering about the rising temperatures in the reactors and the radiation levels in the plant. Some TEPCO workers were in hazmat suits during the recovery effort. But Nakagawa was not. He was still in his company-issued gray cotton work clothes. “My mind went blank. I thought I was toast.” He began to think about how to get out of the place without being noticed.
Meanwhile, the reactors were heading toward a meltdown. With no source of power to inject water into the overheating reactors, the fuel rods became exposed, filling the reactor building with hydrogen gas. TEPCO workers raced to inject seawater, but they were too late. A few minutes after they were ready to do so, Reactor Unit 1 exploded. “I thought this country was finished,” says Jiro Kimura, who had worked at the plant his entire adult life as a TEPCO employee.
Moments after the first reactor exploded, Nakagawa got a call from his boss, who frantically asked: “What the hell are you doing? Get out of the place!” By then, everybody around Nakagawa was talking about the doomsday scenario of all six reactors blowing up. “I couldn’t take it anymore,” he says, and as soon as he noticed that few onlookers were around, he bolted from the building and drove home.
But the hamlet was a ghost town. His family and neighbors had evacuated, but he didn’t have enough gas to drive to the evacuation center. There was little food left at home, although the electricity was on. cThen his boss called, offering to bump up his salary 10 times if he went back. He called acquaintances at TEPCO, who were still clearing rubble and fixing power lines along the perimeter of the plant, and asked them to pick him up.
That may have been a big mistake. The next day, he saw a pink mushroom cloud as Reactor Unit 3 blew up. He was fixing power lines along the south perimeter of the plant at the time, still in his cotton work clothes.
Despite the popular narrative that these men worked at post-tsunami Fukushima out of heroism, many of them had different motives, like Nakagawa, whose company had ties to TEPCO. There were day laborers from the poorest neighborhoods of Tokyo and Osaka who went to Fukushima for the money. Some were members of the yakuza, the Japanese mafia, say workers interviewed for this story. The practice continued until the summer, when a law was passed that made it illegal for companies to have contact with organized criminals. But as long as these people were willing to work, it didn’t matter where they came from, the workers say.
In fact, so many people returned that hundreds of workers were unaccounted for until recently. “Before the accident, it was mandatory to strictly check the identities of the workers,” Kimura says. “But after the accident, the rule became fuzzy—we didn't know who some of these people were, and how many were working here.”
Even legitimate businesses persuaded people to work at the plant with promises that they would not be in any danger. Makoto Inada, who spent years working in and out of nuclear plants as an engineer, received a call from his boss a few weeks after March 11 to join the recovery effort at Fukushima Daiichi.
All he had to do, he says he was told, was to deliver supplies to the stricken plant. No sweat, he thought. But when Inada showed up for work in April, he was promptly escorted to two of the crippled reactor buildings to fix the computer panels in the central control rooms. “I complained to my boss, so he doubled my pay,” Inada says. “My boss treated me well over the years, and I also thought that somebody had to do the job.”
Others say they were threatened—or at least pressured—to work at the plant. Kenji Yamamoto, a co-owner of an electrical-engineering company, says that after the explosion TEPCO and related contractors pushed local businesses to send workers to the plant. “They were desperate for workers, and threatened some companies that they’ll never be able to do business in Fukushima again if they refused,” he says. Such a threat was very real to people who lived and worked in Fukushima prefecture, where the local economy relies heavily on the power company. For many small businesses, there was no way not to work for TEPCO.
It was the same for people like Nakagawa, who grew up in the shadow of the reactors. His parents tried to convince him to join TEPCO when he graduated from high school, but he refused because of its high-handed and arrogant ways, he says. Still, he couldn’t avoid its influence: the small electricity company he joined relied on the much bigger company for business. “I thought about changing jobs, but it isn’t easy,” Nakagawa says. “We have no other industry but the power plant, and I have a family to feed. I had no other choice.”
At least, when Nakagawa returned to the plant for the second time in April, he was given a protective suit and radiation monitor. But the damage was already done. By the time he left the plant in August, Nakagawa’s body was exposed to massive amounts of radiation—triple the amount that requires a full medical examination. It wasn’t until the fall that the government began fully monitoring the health condition of many of these workers.
A law requires plant workers to keep track of their radiation exposure in a notebook, but workers like Junji Tomita and Inada didn’t receive one at the time they started working at Fukushima Daiichi. Tomita doesn’t know how much radiation he’s accumulated in his body. “I’ve never been inside a nuclear plant, and nobody told me about this notebook until June. I feel treated like a disposable worker,” he says.
While many workers say they were unaware of the safety procedures, others seem simply not to care. The annual radiation limit for workers is set at 50 millisieverts, or 100 millisieverts in five years—anyone who exceeds those levels is banned from working at a nuclear plant. Many workers, according to Inada, took off their radiation monitors to get around this restriction so they could keep getting paid. Others took off their protective masks in radiation-filled air to light up a cigarette.
TEPCO has said safety came above everything else. A few months after the accident, TEPCO started giving safety lectures to newcomers like Inada. “Our nuclear plants are safe, because they’re protected under several layers of thick concrete,” one of the lecturers told him. “Safe? The damn place exploded, for crying out loud. Are they joking?” he said.
Inada also says some of the work was sloppy. He says one of the most glaring cases was the disposal of water that became highly contaminated after cooling the damaged reactors. Some of the hoses pumping the water out were leaking like a sprinkler, workers say. For the most part, TEPCO has managed to purify and dispose of the radiation-contaminated water. However, Inada says that in one instance, he was told to dig a ditch that connected one of the stricken reactors to a dike to funnel the highly contaminated water. Problem is, the dike led to the ocean. “It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the water is going to contaminate the ocean, but we had to do what TEPCO said,” Inada says. When asked for comment, TEPCO did not confirm or deny this.
In December, the government declared that Fukushima Daiichi had reached “a state of cold shutdown” and that the plant was now under control. Journalists were taken on tours of the plant in November and again in late February. But experts say the crisis is far from over, noting that for one thing all the fuel that melted through is unaccounted for. Nobody knows the precise location of the fuel, and dismantling Fukushima Daiichi is expected to take decades to complete.
For the Fukushima 50, the crisis is also far from over. Workers have seen too much to be optimistic about the decontamination efforts in surrounding areas of the plant. Says Takeshi Nomura, who worked in the plant and is now part of the decontamination effort: “They tell us decontamination would take three years. It’s utter bullshit. It’s going to take longer than that before people are going to feel safe enough to come back ... That day may never come.”
As for the workers themselves, Nakagawa now knows he has been exposed to heavy doses of radiation, but he is still waiting for test results from a full medical checkup he had in December. He asks: “Am I going to be OK?”
* Names have been changed to protect sources fearing reprisal by TEPCO, which operates the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, and by other subcontractors.