Nuclear plant worker fears for colleagues, future


Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, shown here in 2010, was the site of two explosions in the wake of an 8.9-magnitude earthquake. (YOMIURI/REUTERS)
March 13, 2011

When Tsutomu Tashiro first tallied the damage from the massive earthquake that hammered this area of northern Japan on Friday, he was surprised by his good fortune. All he lost were the tiles from his roof. They had cascaded into his garden.

The next morning, shortly before 7, his world fell apart: the emergency siren sounded at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Tashiro, 32, has worked at the plant since he was 19. Until Saturday, he lived with his family in nearby Namiemichi, a settlement that houses many workers from the nuclear complex. On Saturday the area, north and inland from the power plant, was evacuated by authorities.

“When I felt the earthquake, I knew something was wrong, but I assured my family everything was okay,” he recalled. “But when the alarm went off on Saturday, I knew we had to leave.”

He’s now sleeping on the floor of Fukushima No. 1 Primary School, along with his wife, his two young children, his wife’s parents, her grandparents and about 150 other evacuees. Cheery drawings by the school’s pupils surround their despair.

Tashiro, who maintained turbines at the nuclear plant, wasn’t working at the time of an explosion Saturday in unit 1 of the power complex. He had just finished a week of night shifts and was due for a long weekend off. Instead, he has spent the time fretting about friends and co-workers he hasn’t heard from since Friday.

“We’ve called around and reached lots of people but not everybody. I don’t know whether it’s just because there are problems with the phones, because people are not answering or because they are dead,” he said. He said the complex had about 4,000 workers.

As of Sunday night, authorities had put the official death toll from the quake at just over 1,300, but officials expected casualties to top 10,000. And thousands were listed as missing as a result of the reported 8.9-magnitude earthquake, the worst ever recorded in quake-prone Japan. One worker died in a crane accident at the nuclear plant after the earthquake and four were injured. In addition, one worker had higher-than-normal exposure to radiation, officials said.

“I’m getting very worried just sitting here,” said Tashiro, squatting on the floor of a classroom. Beside him lay a copy of Sunday’s edition of the newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun. Tashiro pointed to a blurred but terrifying photograph on the front page: It showed a cloud of white smoke rising from his workplace. The headline above warned of radiation leakage.

Five hours after the alarm first sounded early Saturday morning, a local official knocked on the door of Tashiro’s tileless family house and suggested they move inland to be farther from the power plant, which is on the coast south of Sendai, the city hit hardest by the quake.

Tashiro drove for about a half-hour and then stopped at a shelter. Before they settled down for the night, a second unit at the plant began to go haywire and authorities widened the evacuation zone.

Tashiro’s family got back in their car and drove over a range of forested hills here to Fukushima, the local capital. The local government sent them to Fukushima No. 1 Primary School, one of two schools being used to shelter people made homeless or simply fearful.

The Japanese government has sought to calm public fears but faces widespread skepticism, the result of several past incidents at nuclear power facilities when authorities were less than forthcoming. In Fukushima on Saturday, a local official in charge of the shelter for evacuees ordered Tashiro and his family to stop talking about what they’d seen. The official, who gave his family name as Hiruta, said interviews were not permitted.

Asked whether he thought the nuclear power plant is safe, Hiruta said only, “I can’t really say.”

The capital of the prefecture where the nuclear plant is located, Fukushima, has no water, little fuel and few shops that are open. And though spared the havoc visited on the coast by a tsunami churned up by the quake, the city of 300,000 residents is jittery about what might come next if the crisis at the nuclear plant, about 65 miles away, spins out of control.

“I’m scared,” said Tashiro’s wife, Yuko, as their two children, a 3-year-old girl and 1-year-old boy, scampered about, oblivious to a danger that Japanese officials insist does not pose a widespread health risk but that has residents across this region of northern Japan on edge.

Jun Sakuma, a doctor in Fukushima, said radiation levels are carefully monitored and have not risen beyond acceptable levels. But he cited a litany of other problems, notably a lack of water, due to quake damage to a pumping station at a reservoir that normally supplies it.

Asked whether it is wise to stay, the doctor said: “If you have a chance, you should leave.”

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