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Don’t Forget The Fukushima Fifty

Paul Dickman

March 23, 2012

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“We’ll form a suicide squad to do it.”  ~ Masao Yoshida,
Fukushima Daiichi Plant Chief responding to Prime
Minister Nato Kan’s demands to start venting of the
stricken reactors early in the morning of March 12, 2011

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In a week of remembrances about last year’s events at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant it is surprising how little has been said about the Fukushima Fifty. “Fukushima Fifty” was the name the Japanese and international media applied to the group of plant workers and emergency responders who, on the morning of March 15th, stayed behind to man the control systems and the site while the bulk of the plant’s employees were relocated.

In the days following the earthquake, a stunned Japanese nation watched as the bodies of thousands killed by the tsunami washed ashore and the grueling search for the living continued in the earthquake rubble. But for much of the rest of the world, the crisis at the Fukushima reactors became the focus of our attention.

The efforts made by the plant employees and many others in the Japanese nuclear industry were widely reported in the West as acts of desperation, rather than a coordinated attack on the problem. The Fukushima Fifty captured the media’s and the world’s attention as a symbol of the drastic measures required. Who could blame them?  Even Emperor Akihito and Prime Minstier Kan made televised statements lauding them, with Mr. Kan going so far as to say they were “prepared for death.”

We may not be able to fully appreciate cultural differences that drive and motivate the Japanese. In the West, there was a fascination with these nuclear “kamikaze” and we saw them as a shocking sign of how desperate things had become. But for the Japanese, the Fukushima Fifty were a symbol of national resolve. Their willingness to sacrifice to protect the nation during this time of crisis became a source of national pride.

Images of these workers putting themselves in harm’s way brought attention to the inept crisis management by the government. By collectively taking action on the ground and at the scene, the emergency responders symbolized by the Fukushima Fifty became a rallying point for finally bringing the coordinated national and international response needed to bring the situation under control.

To many the Fukushima Fifty were viewed as a symbol of the suicidal extremes required to contain the growing disaster at Fukushima. In truth, none of the workers involved in the rescue operations died from radiation, and more importantly, it appears none are likely to.

A year later, there was hardly a mention of the Fukushima Fifty during the anniversary events. The fact that none of the Fukushima Fifty died may explain the absence of stirring tributes to their heroics in the Western media. But this symbolic group played a vital role by spurring changes to the Japanese government’s management of the nuclear disaster. No one died to achieve this and therefore few in the West remember the real role they played.  But the role of the Fukushima Fifty in helping to rally their nation may benefit Japanese society for generations to come.

PAUL T. DICKMAN is a Senior Policy Fellow with Argonne National Laboratory and served as the Study Director for the American Nuclear Society’s Special Committee report on the Fukushima Accident. In 1979, as a junior environmental scientist, Mr. Dickman supported the recovery operations at Three Mile Island.


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Accidental Heroes
Kennette Benedict

We may not remember the Fukushima Fifty who vowed to contain the nuclear catastrophe at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in March 2011, but we will surely remember the 80,000 people who fled their homes to escape the radioactive material spewing from explosions at the plant. And we may even come to know the 1,000 individuals estimated to die from exposure to cesium 137 that settled in the soil and forests around the power station.  It is cold comfort to those whose lives will be shortened, or to others who will never be able to go home, that “no one died from radiation” immediately after the Fukushima disaster.

The actions of the Fukushima Fifty were required because Japan’s nuclear village—nuclear advocates in industry, government, and academia, along with local leaders— downplayed the risks of nuclear power and ignored evidence that would have prompted new safety measures.  A belief in the “absolute safety” of nuclear power—a myth perpetrated by interest groups to overcome memories of the dangers of nuclear energy unleashed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki—got in the way of designing and implementing commonplace emergency preparedness programs, as an independent report by the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation has found  So, plant workers in the middle of the crisis had no training or instruction manuals to help them cope with this accident waiting to happen. The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) had failed its workers, and with government regulators, had failed their country.  Had TEPCO  done its job, there would have been no need for the Fukushima Fifty. Therein lies the real tragedy.

In the end, it was the government’s Self-Defense Forces who successfully injected water into the reactors despite rising radiation levels.  These were heroes, too.

KENNETTE BENEDICT, Executive Director, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, is the former director of the International Peace and Security Area, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Recent articles in the Bulletin include, “Banality of Death by Nuclear Power” and “Fukushima and the Doomsday Clock.”




Sharon Squassoni

Paul Dickman is right to pay tribute to the bravery of the “Fukushima Fifty.”  Their actions certainly will provide lessons that we hope all governments and nuclear power plant designers and operators will learn. Perhaps the most important role the Fukushima Fifty played, however, is to remind us of how impossible it is to take the human element out of nuclear power.

Part of the dismay about the need for the workers to expose themselves to radiation is the assumption, in technically sophisticated countries, that there is a technical solution. Many in the United States wondered why robots were not used in highly radioactive environments to spare the workers radiation doses. The answer is surprising: Japan’s robotics industry is oriented to serve an aging population, for which radiation hardening is not a big requirement. Eventually, robots that could operate in those environments were brought in.

The Holy Grail for the nuclear industry is a power reactor that is inherently or “walk-away” safe, a nuclear plant that will fail “safely” even if operators evacuate, but the International Atomic Energy Agency has warned that these terms are misleading and should not be used. No amount of technology can eliminate the potential for human mistakes or the necessity of human intervention. That means we may require additional heroes in the future. Focusing on the fact that emergency workers at Fukushima didn’t die, however, ignores the real fear in the general population that radioactive contamination could render their homes unlivable for decades. How the Japanese government handles repatriation of the displaced Fukushima population in the coming years will have a significant impact on public perceptions.

SHARON SQUASSONI  directs the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies where she focuses on policy options to reduce nuclear risk. Before moving to the non-governmental community in 2007, she held various positions in nuclear nonproliferation at the U.S. State Department, Arms Control & Disarmament Agency and the Congressional Research Service. 




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