Homage to Yoshida Masao, the Man Who Saved Japan


Yoshida Masao, the plant manager who led the epic fight to contain the March 2011 meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, lost his battle with cancer on July 9 this year. The author of a major book detailing the struggle draws on extensive interviews with Yoshida and his staff in this homage to a “fallen hero.”

I put my hands together in prayer and bowed my head. “Thank you for everything you did,” I said. “You deserve a rest.”

It was July 9, and I had just learned that Yoshida Masao, the former plant manager at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, had passed away at 11:32 am. He was 58.

In March 2011 Yoshida risked his life to prevent a catastrophe that could have contaminated all of eastern Japan. Never forgetting where his duty lay, he worked to avert a nuclear disaster “ten times worse than Chernobyl.” Truly he deserves to be called the man who saved Japan. As one of millions who continue to live and work in the Tokyo area thanks to his heroism, I was overcome with gratitude.

A Fallen Hero

On February 7, 2012, less than a year after the disaster, Yoshida underwent surgery for cancer of the esophagus. Initially his chances for recovery looked good. Then on July 26, he was hospitalized with a cerebral hemorrhage. He survived that emergency with the help of two craniotomies and insertion of a catheter. But the cancer metastasized to his liver, and when I learned that it had spread to the lungs and other parts of the body, I knew the end was near.

As plant manager at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station during the nuclear crisis triggered by the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011, Yoshida fought under conditions of unimaginable stress to pull Japan back from the brink of destruction. He battled interference from the prime minister’s office and unconscionable orders from the head office of Tokyo Electric Power Company even as he struggled to control a meltdown in multiple reactors. Whatever the direct cause of his death, I consider Yoshida Masao a fallen hero.

Before he was hospitalized in July 2012, Yoshida agreed to speak with me on the record. Our two sessions eventually totaled four and a half hours. It had taken me a year and three months, and all the resources I could think of, to convince him to meet me.

When I met Yoshida face to face for the first time, his six-foot frame was thinner than I remembered from news photos and videos. Illness had taken its toll, but he had lost none of his innate good humor. He looked relaxed as he spoke at length and in depth on a wide range of topics. It was then that he confided his belief that a disaster “ten times worse than Chernobyl” would have occurred if the accident had not been contained. He described the heroism of his team as they struggled to prevent this catastrophe, pumping in seawater to cool the reactors and repeatedly entering reactor buildings contaminated by high levels of radioactivity.

Defying Orders from the Top

Yoshida quickly called on the Self-Defense Forces to send fire engines and had workers set up a network of lines to pump seawater into the reactor. He personally directed the emergency venting of the Reactor No. 1 containment vessel to reduce the pressure inside and prevent an explosion. In his interview, Yoshida described the harrowing scene as workers entered the building attired in fire suits and oxygen masks, with air tanks on their backs, risking death to open the vents around the overheated reactor.

The workers who carried out that critical operation could not praise Yoshida highly enough. “I remember thinking, ‘I can face death as long as Mr. Yoshida is with us,’” one of them said: “If anyone else had been in charge at the time, I doubt we would have been able to contain the disaster,” said another. Civilian employees are unlikely to risk their lives unless the orders come from a leader they love and respect. As the workers returned from their mission, Yoshida praised them one by one, grasping each by the hand and saying, “You made it! Thank you so much!”

The staff’s devotion deepened when they saw Yoshida standing up to top TEPCO executives during teleconferences—and particularly when former TEPCO executive Takekuro Ichirō, TEPCO’s liaison in the Prime Minister’s Office, ordered Yoshida to stop flooding the reactor with seawater. “The Prime Minister’s Office is on my case the whole time!” he said. “Stop injecting seawater right now.” But Yoshida knew that this was their last hope to cool the reactor and avert a much worse disaster. “What are you talking about?!” he retorted angrily. “We can’t stop.”

Having defied Takekuro, Yoshida was expecting a similar order from TEPCO headquarters at any moment. He found the foreman who was supervising the cooling operations and took him aside.

“Listen,” he told him. “We may get orders from the head office to stop injecting seawater into the reactor. During the teleconference, I’ll tell you to stop. But you don’t need to follow the orders. Keep pumping water. Got it?”

Sure enough, TEPCO headguarters called soon after with an order to stop flooding the reactor with seawater. But thanks to Yoshida’s quick thinking, the vital cooling operations continued. Of all the nuclear energy experts at TEPCO, Yoshida alone remembered the real duty of a nuclear power engineer.

Heroism of the Fukushima 69

Early in the morning on March 15, Yoshida sat exhausted in the emergency command center on the second floor of a seismically isolated building. The nuclear accident at Fukushima Daiichi was at its most critical phase, with pressure rising inside the Reactor No. 2 containment vessel. Yoshida rose unsteadily from his chair, then collapsed back down again. For some time he sat there, head bowed, lost in thought.

“At that point,” he told me, “there was only one way to keep the meltdown under control, and that was to continue pumping in seawater. I had to decide who would stay at the plant and keep the seawater flowing. It was like deciding who would die with me. The faces of my team appeared before me one after another. . . . The first who came to mind was the supervisor of the plant’s safety and recovery team. We’re the same age, although he joined TEPCO straight out of high school. We’ve been through a lot together over the years. I knew right away that he would be prepared to risk his life to do what was necessary.”

“I couldn’t bear the idea that these people I had known for years might die on my orders. But I knew that our only hope was to keep injecting water. I had no choice. I had to ask them to prepare for the worst. I couldn’t get the thoughts out of my head as I sat there.”

It was a critical decision. In the end, 69 men stayed behind to fight the climactic battle, although the Western media later dubbed them the “Fukushima 50.” All of them were determined to do whatever it took to contain the disaster. By refusing to accept defeat and persevering in the face of great personal risk, Yoshida and his team prevented a catastrophe that might have destroyed Fukushima and rendered a third of Japan uninhabitable.

Tsunami Preparations Cut Short

I was shocked when the antinuclear media began bashing Yoshida after his death. They claimed he had dragged his feet on measures that would have protected the plant better against tsunami damage. The truth is just the opposite.

In April 2007, Yoshida was appointed head of the Nuclear Asset Management Department at TEPCO. From that time on, he continued to study the risk of a major tsunami. The Tsunami Evaluation Subcommittee of the Japan Society of Civil Engineers concluded that there was no need to take into account the possibility of a tsunami off the coast of Fukushima, and even the government’s Central Disaster Management Council (chaired by the prime minister) excluded tsunamis arising from a seismic event off the coast of Fukushima from special disaster planning. Despite this, Yoshida had his analysts run hypothetical calculations of the maximum tsunami height for the area based on the possibility of an offshore earthquake on a similar scale to the Meiji Sanriku Earthquake in 1896. That quake took place off the coast of Iwate Prefecture and triggered a tsunami that claimed about 22,000 lives. When the analysis came back with a maximum height of 15.7 meters, Yoshida submitted a formal request to the JSCE to carry out a tsunami hazard assessment off the coast of Fukushima.

Yoshida’s research into the history of tsunamis in the region went back even further. He directed surveys of tsunami deposits to confirm the height of the tsunami triggered by the Jōgan Sanriku Earthquake that took place in 869. The surveys concluded that the tsunami reached 4 meters in height.

But designing and constructing a seawall capable of protecting a power plant from a hypothetical disaster is not something that happens overnight. The consensus was that such a huge tsunami was highly improbable. Even if one did occur, some experts warned that a wall might not be enough to alleviate the risk: if a major wave hit the wall at an oblique angle the wave might glance off the wall and rebound into neighboring settlements, causing massive damage. In addition, any plans for a giant seawall would first have to undergo an environmental assessment to determine what effect it would have on the marine environment and the local fishing industry.

Far from dragging his feet on tsunami safety, Yoshida did more than anyone else in the industry to gather the data necessary to convince local communities of the need for stronger protective measures at Fukushima Daiichi.

But before his efforts could bear fruit, disaster struck. The earthquake that struck off the northeast coast of Japan on March 11, 2011 was on a scale beyond anything that any of the major scientific societies or research institutions had foreseen. It released 358 times the energy of the 1995 Kobe earthquake and unleashed a massive tsunami. It fell to Yoshida to contain the disaster, knowing the effort could cost him his life.

United under Yoshida’s inspiring leadership, workers charged into the plant’s highly radioactive reactor buildings again and again. In doing so, they averted a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions. The Japanese people should be grateful that providence placed Yoshida Masao at the scene of the disaster on that fateful afternoon. Without him, things could have been much, much worse.

(Originally published in Japanese on August 14, 2013. Top photograph: Yoshida Masao, then manager of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, answers questions from the press in the plant’s quakeproof emergency control center. Photo courtesy of Yomiuri Shimbun and Aflo.)

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