Nuclear plant worker fears for colleagues, future

By Andrew Higgins
Sunday, March 13, 2011; 10:29 PM

FUKUSHIMA, JAPAN - 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.

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