The term, “Fukushima 50,” was coined by the media to refer to the remaining workers of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (福島第一原子力発電所) after a series of nuclear accidents following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. The number was supposed to reflect the workers that were at the site at the time but 50 is not accurate. There were actually more than 500 workers at the site on the day of the incident. But as a bid for solidarity, the name stuck.
Internationally, people regarded the Fukushima 50 as heroes; but in their own country, they mostly remain a mystery. Little is known about them and even their names are unknown because they chose to be anonymous. Fortunately, Atsufumi Yoshizawa (吉澤厚文), a nuclear engineer who is part of the Fukushima 50, attended and answered a few interviews to give people an insight into what happened on March 11, 2011, and the months after that. His interview gave us a look into what the Fukushima 50 went through.
On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake hit Japan’s northeast coast. Less than a hundred miles away from there, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant can be found. Yoshizawa, who was inside the building at that time, said that the quake’s effect was unlike anything he has seen before. The building was shaking so much that people were brought to their knees. Pipes were ripped from the ceilings, and outside, parked cars bounced like mere toys.
The workers present in the plant headed to the evacuation building and into earthquake-proof rooms. However, the earthquake was only the start of the nightmare that Yoshizawa and the rest of the workers would be facing.
Not even an hour after the first shockwave, a tsunami with waves reaching 15 meters high struck the nuclear power plant. The facility’s 5.7-meter seawall did not stand a chance. The waves roared into the reactor buildings and ruined everything – from the electric switching units to the backup power supplies.
With the power supplies crippled, there was no way to pump water to the nuclear core, which was necessary to cool down the nuclear fuel rods and prevent it from melting and releasing harmful radioactive material into and beyond Fukushima (福島).
Fifteen hours after the loss of power supply, the inevitable happened. The fuel rods in one of the six reactors at the plant melted. Two more reactors were in danger of being the same. Two explosions happened in the reactor buildings. At this point of time, Yoshizawa was already off-site, but he, together with many other colleagues, volunteered to go back. Yoshizawa recalled that people who saw them head to the plant had similar expressions on their faces. No one was expecting them to come out of the plant alive.
For weeks, the people inside the plant worked long shifts and slept on the cold floor of a radiation-proof bunker. Deliveries of emergency supplies were halted because soldiers were busy retrieving bodies from the debris and helping survivors outside the plant. This meant that Fukushima 50’s food supply was limited. They only ate biscuits and dried foods, and each worker was restricted to a 500mL water bottle that was supposed to last for two days.
In December 2011, the Japanese government declared that the damaged reactors were in cold shutdown, which means that it is in a stable state. Finally, Yoshizawa and the rest of the Fukushima 50 returned to regular working conditions.
Today, only a few people still remember the Fukushima 50, but I think it is important to recall their bravery. Without them, the damage would have been so much worse. I believe that they deserve to be called heroes.