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a panicky exodus
May 20, 2014 4:54 PM   Subscribe

The Asahi Shimbun has learned (from recently released interviews with now-deceased Fukushima plant manager Masao Yoshida) that 90% all workers, including managers required to deal with accidents, defied orders and fled the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant at a critical juncture when the disaster was unfolding in March 2011. The New York Times reports on the story as well.
posted by flapjax at midnite (37 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
I used to work for the nuclear energy lobby in the US. Quitting my job, the Monday after Fukushima, was one of the two or three best decisions I've ever made in my life.
posted by wensink at 5:40 PM on May 20 [15 favorites]


Yoshida’s testimony raises questions about whether utility workers can be depended upon to remain at their posts in the event of an emergency.

Slight understatement. It doesn't raise questions, it proved that workers won't stay at their posts when the alternative is getting cooked.
posted by benzenedream at 5:45 PM on May 20 [7 favorites]


In 2012, TEPCO released videos of teleconferences after the Fukushima nuclear accident started. In one scene, Yoshida is seen giving orders to a large number of workers in the emergency command center. However, it was unclear what Yoshida said at that time because TEPCO said no audio recording had been made.

We don't have much context for this quote, but recording the video part of a teleconference, but conveniently not recording potentially incriminating audio, strains credulity. What exactly would be the purpose of such a recording?
posted by Salvor Hardin at 6:07 PM on May 20 [1 favorite]


Slight understatement. It doesn't raise questions, it proved that workers won't stay at their posts when the alternative is getting cooked.

Untrue. The Chernobyl staff stayed in position, some of them ran towards the burning reactor. Many of them died doing so. None of the Three Mile Island staff left their posts.

The staff at Chernobyl knew exactly what staying meant, as did the firemen who arrived from off site. None of them expect to live out the year. Most of them expected to die that night.

Yet, they stayed.

Why did TEPCO staff not stay? And how much damage have they caused the world by not doing so?
posted by eriko at 6:08 PM on May 20 [36 favorites]


"Getting cooked"?

No one was ordering these people to their doom or death or even unacceptable radiation doses. They had an obligation to public safety the same as anyone who is a firefighter, law enforcement or health worker.

The real reason they left was because they had no contact, no way to communicate, with their families who had also been affected by the quake and tsunami.
posted by fontophilic at 6:09 PM on May 20 [15 favorites]


I'm really bothered by the subtext in the pro-nuclear media coverage over this story. There's no reason that decent, regular human beings have to microwave themselves because the industry they work for is too cheap to do their business in a clean and safe way.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 6:38 PM on May 20 [7 favorites]


wensink: "I used to work for the nuclear energy lobby in the US. Quitting my job, the Monday after Fukushima, was one of the two or three best decisions I've ever made in my life."

Did you quit because of Fukushima? Were there issues with your job as a US nuclear energy lobbyist that you found unacceptable?
posted by Reverend John at 6:47 PM on May 20 [3 favorites]


Might not be quite as bad as it sounds at first:

Only 69 workers remained at the No. 1 plant. It was not until around noon on March 15 that other workers returned from the No. 2 plant.

During their absence, white steam was seen spewing out of the No. 2 reactor and a fire occurred at the No. 4 reactor. Radiation levels reached the highest levels near the main gate of the No. 1 plant.


So they were gone for about five hours. It's not entirely clear whether the steam release and fire would have been prevented if everyone was still there. I'm not quite ready to condemn the workers yet, though it does seem at the very least like an unfortunate misunderstanding of orders.
posted by echo target at 6:58 PM on May 20 [1 favorite]


One thing I learned from going through the Loma Prieta earthquake is that it is really hard to predict how people respond in a disaster. Earthquakes may be the most difficult [I've also been through a smallish hurricane and a derecho] because you have no warning and then the freaking earth itself starts moving.

When you read or see interviews with first responders or others who are tasked with responding in emergency situations and performed their task well the refrain is always, "I fell back on my training".

To me this seems more to indicate a lack of preparation and training than any issue of "panic".
posted by vapidave at 7:00 PM on May 20 [11 favorites]


@Reverend John Yes, it was about Fukushima. Among other things, I was asked by multiple CEOs to remove and/or parse the word "explosion" in Tweets I had posted over that Friday and Saturday. Having seen that 90% of our web traffic that weekend was coming from Japan, looking for information about public safety, I was uncomfortable with what was being asked of me given the lack of facts we had on the ground.
posted by wensink at 7:22 PM on May 20 [12 favorites]


People keep forgetting Fukushima is a tiny, minuscule incident amidst a huge earthquake and tsunami disaster that killed over sixteen thousand people. So far, not a single person has died from radiation or anything else coming from Fukushima.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:24 PM on May 20 [15 favorites]


People keep forgetting Fukushima is a tiny, minuscule incident amidst a huge earthquake and tsunami disaster that killed over sixteen thousand people. So far, not a single person has died from radiation or anything else coming from Fukushima.

This very statement has been trotted out so often as to become a parody of itself, except that the people trotting it out are seemingly unaware that they are engaging in parody.

It fails to acknowledge or address so many by now well-delineated aspects of radioactivity and its long term health effects on humans and other living creatures that, well, gosh, where does one even begin? It's absurd to start going into why the immediate or short term health impact is not what we're talking about when we talk about a nuclear disaster. Perhaps people who make these kinds of comments, then, can, you know, stop now? That is, if they want to at least *appear* intelligent and reasonably well-informed on this subject.

Not only that, but comparing one disaster to another, particularly when they are so different in nature (in this case, an "act of God" like an earthquake and a nuclear meltdown) is an exercise in pointlessness. That's another reason this tired, continually repeated observation is completely irrelevant, and in fact is easily exposed as what it is: a diversionary tactic.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:32 PM on May 20 [19 favorites]


No one was ordering these people to their doom or death or even unacceptable radiation doses. They had an obligation to public safety the same as anyone who is a firefighter, law enforcement or health worker.

None of those people is required to be irradiated massively all at one go.

People will run to save their lives. Perhaps our analysis of nuclear power should take this into account.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:36 PM on May 20 [2 favorites]


A tsunami or an earthquake makes sense. Stuff falls down and people die, there's no mystery there. Nuclear radiation, on the other hand, is not something people naturally understand. You can't feel it, can't see it, you only hear it in the ominous clicks of a Geiger-Mueller detector. The unknown evokes fear in just about everyone, because the brain is so good at filling in the darkness with the worst things imaginable.

I'm just continually disappointed by how thoroughly anti-nuclear propogandists allow themselves to be ruled by fear and ignorance. To them every reactor is a bomb and every disaster involving a release of fission products is infinitely worse than the same one with containment intact. We desperately need to wean ourselves off carbon-releasing power sources, whose effect on the long-term health of the PLANET is far more measurable than the long-term health effects of ionizing radiation.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 8:37 PM on May 20 [9 favorites]


Perhaps people who make these kinds of comments, then, can, you know, stop now? That is, if they want to at least *appear* intelligent and reasonably well-informed on this subject.

I think perhaps those points should be addressed, not identified as something people should stop saying because to say them makes them sound neither intelligent nor reasonably well informed.

This is not an argument.

So what are the possible long term effects? Then we can judge.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:42 PM on May 20 [5 favorites]


I think perhaps those points should be addressed, not identified as something people should stop saying because to say them makes them sound neither intelligent nor reasonably well informed.

There is enough awful sh*t listed here that I'm comfortable discussing this issue without doing an apples to oranges comparison about who is really suffering as a result of the Fukushima disaster.

The real negative outcomes of Fukushima include people unable to return to their homes, people losing their livelihoods, people becoming ill and even people committing suicide as a result of dealing with all the rest of this mess. This is not hypothetical; this has already happened as a result of the Fukushima disaster.

So I think flapjax is entirely correct: bringing up the overall death toll of the 2011 disaster and comparing it to the outcome of the Fukushima disaster is entirely diversionary. We don't need to quantify and compare tragedies in this way to somehow find a justification for talking about what happened (and continues to happen) at Fukushima, and for wanting to try to avoid a similar situation in the future.
posted by dubitable at 10:18 PM on May 20 [7 favorites]


I'm just continually disappointed by how thoroughly anti-nuclear propogandists allow themselves to be ruled by fear and ignorance. To them every reactor is a bomb and every disaster involving a release of fission products is infinitely worse than the same one with containment intact. We desperately need to wean ourselves off carbon-releasing power sources, whose effect on the long-term health of the PLANET is far more measurable than the long-term health effects of ionizing radiation.

I'm definitely in agreement that we need to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels. And I have been willing to consider nuclear energy as an energy source in the past; I've never been an anti-nuclear activist and still don't consider myself one. I also acknowledge that the effects of fossil fuel power sources are equally hard on the environment and on peoples' health and wellbeing.

But living in Japan and seeing the real, horrible effects of what happens when things go wrong with nuclear energy gives me pause. Reading about Chernobyl scares me when considering how bad things could possibly get. And knowing of the general incompetence of governments around the world, and the lack of interest in safety--and focus on the bottom line--that most companies who would be building these plants have...these concerns make me reluctant to agree that this form of energy is a cure-all. I think we have to recognize that the problems with nuclear energy are real and significant, and things can and have gone wrong.

To label anyone who is skeptical about nuclear energy with the broad brush of being a propagandist and "ruled by fear and ignorance" is unfair and does not help when trying to have a rational debate about the subject. There are valid concerns here worth discussing.
posted by dubitable at 10:31 PM on May 20 [14 favorites]


People will run to save their lives. Perhaps our analysis of nuclear power should take this into account.

Except in previous nuclear disasters, the staff did not run away. So it doesn't seem to be universally the case. I think it's worth investigating why the Fukushima staff reacted so differently than the Three Mile Island or Chernobyl workers. Was it the external pressures of the tsunami and earthquake? Was their training deficient in some way?
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:13 PM on May 20 [5 favorites]


This reads to me like a lot of the staff received conflicting and/or vague instructions. In the middle of an ongoing crisis like that, I can't blame people--particularly those who don't have a full view of the crisis--for going with whichever interpretation offers the best chance of survival. Had they received a clear and unambiguous order to stay at their posts, I imagine the vast majority of those workers would've done so, just like the workers at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.

I'm having a hard time imagining some way in which Japanese culture and work ethics would fall short in the self-sacrifice department, y'know? This seems much more a case of honest confusion than anything else.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 11:33 PM on May 20 [2 favorites]


Except in previous nuclear disasters, the staff did not run away.

In the case of a severe accident -

1) Expect your employees to die for the company as required.

Now there's a plan. I'm really convinced nuclear power is safe.
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:56 AM on May 21 [5 favorites]


And knowing of the general incompetence of governments around the world, and the lack of interest in safety--and focus on the bottom line--that most companies who would be building these plants have...these concerns make me reluctant to agree that this form of energy is a cure-all. I think we have to recognize that the problems with nuclear energy are real and significant, and things can and have gone wrong.

Bingo. I would be 100% fine with nuclear energy if I knew that the engineers were calling the shots. They're not; the bean pushers are. The executives with the bottom line...they have budgets, they have profit goals. The Fukushima plant was supposed to have been decommissioned a year or so before the disaster; the TEPCO execs thought that too expensive. Mind you, this was a forty-year old plant with backup generators below sea level. Right on the ocean. In hindsight it's easy, of course, to say well of course it should've been decommissioned. And there were scientists that were calling for its closure, but staying in the black was deemed more necessary.

I have a lot of faith that scientists can keep nuclear safe. But people tend to take risks when money is involved. Doesn't make them evil people (necessarily), but we have to factor that in to our planning.
posted by zardoz at 1:37 AM on May 21 [11 favorites]


I'm going to guess that two things happened at Fukishima that didn't happen at Chernobyl and Three Mile.

1. Outside disaster meant that the workers couldn't just concentrate on the nuclear problem. They would have be seriously concerned about the stuff going on behind their shoulder blades. Firstly about their families and friends and neighbourhoods that were effected by the earthquake and the tsunami and secondly if there was going to be another earthquake and even more danger from some other direction.

2. They were told to evacuate. Once you start people backing up they have been given permission to move in evade danger and if your retreat ends up being further or faster than your commanding officers tell you, it's no surprise. Retreating from danger is very difficult for commanding officers to manage. It doesn't take much for an order to pull back and regroup to devolve into a rout. This means that I think the fact that the staff went to #2 and no further and then came back to #1 when given new orders means that the retreat was actually handled pretty decently.

My respect goes out to Yoshida who held his ground. But I haven't lost respect for the managers or staff who went to #2.
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:09 AM on May 21 [10 favorites]


People keep forgetting Fukushima is a tiny, minuscule incident amidst a huge earthquake and tsunami disaster that killed over sixteen thousand people. So far, not a single person has died from radiation or anything else coming from Fukushima.

This very statement has been trotted out so often as to become a parody of itself, except that the people trotting it out are seemingly unaware that they are engaging in parody.


Deaths in Coal mines since 3MI= (US only) 175
Deaths in Nuke plants since 3MI= 31- Chernobyl, mostly in the original explosion.
Deaths in Oil rigs since 3MI = 808 worldwide. (Note to self: do not work on Indian oil rigs)
posted by Gungho at 6:18 AM on May 21 [2 favorites]


I used to work for the nuclear energy lobby in the US. Quitting my job, the Monday after Fukushima, was one of the two or three best decisions I've ever made in my life.

Speaking as someone who grew up near Three Mile Island (fortunately my family was in Florida at the time the accident happened), I'd be incredibly fascinated to learn anything more you could tell us about the nuclear industry. I can't be the only one in this thread whose curiosity has been piqued.
posted by jonp72 at 6:21 AM on May 21


1) Expect your employees to die for the company as required.

Please cite your source for this line that has been repeated 3 times now in this thread.

Just because you don't understand the effects of radiation, proper precautionary procedures, and doses that are known to be safe, does not mean that these trained and skilled workers do not. No one. No one, ordered these workers to their deaths. These workers all had dosimeters on their persons.

I'm having a hard time imagining some way in which Japanese culture and work ethics would fall short in the self-sacrifice department, y'know?

In some circumstances, people on the ground at Fukushima actually kowtowed too much to management. People on the ground, who had poor communication* up the chain of command, deferred decisions, which created delays. In some circumstances having the braggadocio of Americans pays off, even if it means breaking rules under extraordinary circumstances.

*we're talking dudes who had to run back and forth to talk to a guy who had a walkie-talkie who could run into the control room, which was lit by iPhone flashlights, and back again. All the while in giant plastic bag suits. And without sleep for 48hrs straight.
posted by fontophilic at 6:22 AM on May 21


These workers all had dosimeters on their persons.

They also had their bosses lying through their teeth to the media the whole while. Of course the dosimeters were in working order and would give them time for an orderly evacuation. Sure thing. You stay where you are, and polish up that shiny dosimeter, buddy.

In some circumstances having the braggadocio of Americans pays off, even if it means breaking rules under extraordinary circumstances.

This means nuclear energy cannot be trusted.

Oh, my go, the goalposts on this whole deal have been moved with incredible vigor. First, there was no chance of a meltdown. The meltdown happened. Then there was no chance the meltdown could breach the containment vessel. It breached the containment vessel. Now the song and dance is, "Hey, it's not so bad! No-one has died yet, and what a few square miles of permanently uninhabitable land between friends?"
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:25 AM on May 21 [2 favorites]


I've never been an anti-nuclear activist and still don't consider myself one. I also acknowledge that the effects of fossil fuel power sources are equally hard on the environment and on peoples' health and wellbeing.

I thought the effects of fossil fuel power sources are orders of magnitude harder on the environment (CO2 ánd radioactivity release) and peoples health (i.e. lung diseases). I was under the impression that the major factor affecting peoples wellbeing was/is the "scaremongering" around nulear energy (disasters); i.e. very few getting sick from radiation, more from psychological stress.
posted by Akeem at 8:51 AM on May 21 [1 favorite]


My understanding, Salvor Hardin, is that Masao Yoshida defied TEPCO orders and, by doing so, prevented the nuclear disaster at Fukushima from being much worse than it almost certainly would have been.

Masoa Yoshida was acknowledged by Prime Minister Naoto Kan for his actions and, by my measure, is one of the few heroes of the crisis.
posted by mistersquid at 9:01 AM on May 21


Bingo. I would be 100% fine with nuclear energy if I knew that the engineers were calling the shots. They're not; the bean pushers are.

This, I think, is the crux of the problem. I'm pro-nuclear in general, but I am not at all convinced that profit-seeking private-sector business entities can or should be responsible for operating nuclear facilities.

There are other areas where we have similarly decided that for-profit companies just shouldn't be calling the shots. Hospitals, for instance. (Can you imagine how much more fucked-up healthcare would be if the operating companies were profit-maximizing, publicly traded companies like Exelon? The mind reels.)

The US Naval Reactor program has, somewhat famously, never had a nuclear accident on any of its surface, submarine, or shore-based reactors, and it operates what I suspect is the largest number of reactors controlled by a single organization (100+), at least since the demise of the USSR. Perhaps the operation of nuclear systems is one of those things that needs the rigorous command-and-control environment that the military can provide. The military does not have a problem telling people "you will stay at your post until relieved", and perhaps more importantly, is able to maintain a day-to-day level of discipline and attention to detail that, based on outcomes, doesn't seem to be de rigueur in the civilian power industry.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:25 AM on May 21 [3 favorites]


Gungho: Deaths in Nuke plants ...

There are the clear and direct deaths attributed to catastrophic accidents, and then the long-term impacts, some of which take years to become apparent, as was the case with Chernobyl.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:26 AM on May 21 [1 favorite]


I don't know if it's clear to everyone who's commenting here but these articles are describing events that occurred four days after the earthquake, not the day of the earthquake. I'm sure things were still chaotic but it wasn't the immediate aftermath.
posted by ChuckRamone at 1:30 PM on May 21


fontophil: Just because you don't understand the effects of radiation, proper precautionary procedures, and doses that are known to be safe, does not mean that these trained and skilled workers do not. No one. No one, ordered these workers to their deaths. These workers all had dosimeters on their persons.

An emergency situation, by its very nature, is not the controlled and well-understood situation that you have just conjured up in your fantasies.

Firemen armed with air tanks and state-of-the-art heat shielding clothing still die. They know they might when they apply for those jobs. Dying during an at-work emergency is something they have to take into their calculus.

Nuclear plant workers during a crisis are not (by and large) the same as firefighters, the crew on nuke subs, nor the near-omnipotent risk evaluators you have described. I doubt anyone on Earth understood the full and instantaneous risks of Fukishima while it was unfolding.
posted by IAmBroom at 2:45 PM on May 21 [1 favorite]


ChuckRamone: an excellent point, but it took a lot longer than four days for the crisis to be fully understood.

Lies from the government didn't help, of course.
posted by IAmBroom at 2:48 PM on May 21


This very statement has been trotted out so often as to become a parody of itself, except that the people trotting it out are seemingly unaware that they are engaging in parody.

You completely missed my point, although I admit I made it badly. My point, in relation to the article:

When the crew abandoned the facility, they weren't thinking "holy crap it's a meltdown, I'm going to get irradiated, RUN!" They were thinking, "holy crap, everyone I know except the people in this room are already dead, and everything I own has already been swept out to sea. And more waves are coming, I'm next if I don't get away from the shore, RUN."

Look at some of the statistics on the damage, estimates of up to $300 Billion. That's hundreds of billions of US Dollars, not Yen. In economic terms, even long term, the cost of Fukushima is a drop in the bucket. This is the costliest disaster in history, the Japanese government and industries have dumped billions of dollars of cash into recovery, and even a hundred years from now non-Fukushima related costs of this disaster will far exceed any reactor and radiation cleanup.

Now that I have made myself clear, I am bowing out of this thread. Comments like yours (and others in this thread) verge on ad hominem, you projected your ideas onto my statements in a disparaging way in an attempt to squelch discussion. That is not what we do on MeFi.
posted by charlie don't surf at 4:38 PM on May 21 [2 favorites]


I thought the effects of fossil fuel power sources are orders of magnitude harder on the environment (CO2 ánd radioactivity release) and peoples health (i.e. lung diseases).

I don't dispute this and after I re-read my comment I thought that I misspoke there (and missed the edit window). That acknowledged, my main point was that regardless, because of the risks involved, we still need to question the efficacy of nuclear energy as a replacement for these other (environmentally disastrous) forms of energy.
posted by dubitable at 11:28 PM on May 21


charlie don't surf: "When the crew abandoned the facility, they weren't thinking "holy crap it's a meltdown, I'm going to get irradiated, RUN!" They were thinking, "holy crap, everyone I know except the people in this room are already dead, and everything I own has already been swept out to sea. And more waves are coming, I'm next if I don't get away from the shore, RUN.""

Wait, they were cool with the possibility of more waves coming for three days, and then on the fourth day they decided more waves were coming and it was time to run?
posted by Bugbread at 8:15 PM on May 22


Wait, they were cool with the possibility of more waves coming for three days, and then on the fourth day they decided more waves were coming and it was time to run?

That's absolutely right, Bugbread.

In the mind of the person who made that comment.

Who doesn't have the foggiest clue as to what the bejesus he's talking about.

posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:07 AM on May 23


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