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Fukushima’s first responders recall the disaster 12 years on

Julian Ryall in Tokyo

03/10/2023March 10, 2023, The so-called “Fukushima 50” were the emergency workers sent to the nuclear disaster site. A fire chief and nuclear engineer have spoken to DW about their roles in the emergency cleanup operations.

The March 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant — caused by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami — forced thousands to flee the leaking radiation. But a handful of people ran in the opposite direction.

A skeleton staff of the plant volunteered to remain on site as the crisis worsened. Reactor temperatures were spiking uncontrollably, and a series of hydrogen explosions ripped the reactor buildings apart. At the same time, dozens more specialist engineers and emergency workers were rushed to the site.

It was the second-worst nuclear accident in world history.

The media quickly dubbed this small group the “Fukushima 50,” even though as many as 580 emergency personnel rotated through the site in the first chaotic days of the disaster. But the name stuck, and even became the title of a 2020 movie about the emergency.

Sunday marks the 12th anniversary of the disaster. Two of the first responders agreed to speak to DW, giving a rare insight into what happened over those difficult days.

The fire chief’s tale

Osamu Kinoshita, head of the special disasters response team of the Tokyo Fire Department, was at its headquarters in the Otemachi district when the earthquake struck shortly before 3 p.m. on March 11. He saw the first images of the destruction as they were broadcast on television.

Kinoshita and his team were initially sent to respond to fires and collapsed buildings in Tokyo. Fears for his own son ran through his mind as he worked. Kazuya Kinoshita was a university student at the time in the town of Rikuzentakata, one of the worst affected in the disaster zone, but communication lines were down.

“When I saw the waves destroying the city, I assumed there was no way he would have been able to survive,” Kinoshita told DW. By chance, his son had been taking a driving lesson further inland at the time of the quake, and was not swept up in the tsunami. But it took three days for that information to reach his parents.

By that time, Kinoshita was preparing to head to the Fukushima plant.

“On the night of March 17, the prime minister [Naoto Kan] made a formal request to the governor of Tokyo for assistance, and the order was issued to the fire brigade,” he said. “The request was specifically for crews to go to the reactors and make sure that sufficient water was getting into the pools holding the spent nuclear fuel.”

“Everyone was given the choice of whether to go or not, but all 300 people in the team said they would go,” he said.

The 32-vehicle convoy left Tokyo at around 2 a.m. and drove for seven hours, negotiating damaged bridges and roads blocked by landslides.

Once at the site, the fire crews ran hoses 800 meters (2,625 feet) out to the ocean and started spraying seawater onto the reactors to keep them cool. Ladders from firefighting trucks were hoisted over the damaged reactor buildings, and in the first 20-minute operation, some 60 tons of water were sprayed on the reactor shrouds. Over the following eight days, a further 4,000 tons of water were pumped onto the structures.

The firefighter standing at the top of the ladder had to be replaced every five minutes, as radiation levels were dangerously high and the entire complex was being hit by aftershocks.

“We realized the risks were pretty severe, but we were all there to get this job done,” he said. “I remember when we were first setting up the equipment and we were directly between the second and third reactors, and I wondered to myself which way I should run if there was another big aftershock. Those concerns were always in the back of our minds.”

The engineer’s experience……………………………………………………….

March 12, 2023 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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