Panicked workers abandoned Fukushima as the nuclear disaster unfolded, report reveals

Newly uncovered interviews claim the majority of the plant's workers defied orders and fled the scene

Published May 20, 2014 1:43PM (EDT)

Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant is flooded as a tsunami strikes       (AP/Anonymous)
Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant is flooded as a tsunami strikes (AP/Anonymous)

As a nuclear disaster began to unfold at the Fukushima No. 1 plant, a full 650 of the 720 workers on hand panicked and abandoned the scene, a previously undisclosed report reveals.

That's a very different version of events than the one put forward by TEPCO, the plant's operator, which has said that it evacuated most of its workers, leaving a small, dedicated team behind to risk their lives fighting to contain the crisis.

The Asahi Shimbun, a major Japanese newspaper, draws this new account from interviews -- 29 hours' worth -- conducted by the Japanese government with the plant’s manager, Masao Yoshida, who died last year of cancer. The situation Yoshida described is one of absolute chaos:

At 6:42 a.m., Yoshida ordered workers to temporarily evacuate to locations at the plant site where radiation levels were comparatively low. He told them to wait in locations from where they could immediately return to their posts.

He added that the workers would be asked to return once confirmation was made that there were no abnormalities.

In the document, Yoshida said he considered areas at the plant where radiation levels were low as the temporary evacuation sites.

According to Yoshida’s testimony to the government panel, some workers around 7 a.m. told drivers of buses waiting outside the command center to head to the Fukushima No. 2 nuclear power plant about 10 kilometers to the south. Other workers hopped into their own vehicles and drove to the No. 2 plant, also operated by TEPCO.

The roads were damaged by the quake and tsunami, and the workers who fled would have to wear and remove protective clothing and face masks when entering and leaving the Fukushima No. 2 plant. That means they would have been unable to follow Yoshida’s order to return immediately to their posts at the No. 1 plant.

Designated group managers, who are required under TEPCO regulations to remain at their posts to provide support in operating and controlling nuclear reactors when a major accident occurs, were among the 650 people who fled to the No. 2 plant.

According to the document, Yoshida told a government panel questioner: “In fact, I never told the workers to go (to the No. 2 plant). I thought I gave an order to temporarily evacuate to a location where radiation levels were low near the Fukushima No. 1 plant and await further instructions.

“After the workers arrived at the No. 2 plant, I contacted them and asked that the group managers be the first to return.”

Yoshida did not seem to blame the rank-and-file workers for fleeing, telling his questioner “it may have been unavoidable.” However, he did express surprise that group managers were among those who had left.

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.

The Japanese government confirmed the report, but did not explain why it had been kept secret. TEPCO countered only that Yoshida's vague order to withdraw to "low radiation areas" technically could have referred to the No. 2 plant, and said that it therefore didn't consider those workers to have violated orders.

That the plant experienced such a severe breakdown in its chain of command during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami becomes all the more relevant as the Japanese government moves to restart the country's other nuclear reactors, which were temporarily shut down after the disaster. As the Asahi article notes, "Yoshida’s testimony raises questions about whether utility workers can be depended upon to remain at their posts in the event of an emergency."

By Lindsay Abrams

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Fukushima Japan Earthquake Japan Tsunami Nuclear Power Tepco