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Panic and heroism greeted crisis at Japan nuclear plant

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TOKYO >> With the power out, trucks were parked in a circle with their lights on, creating a shadowy stage. A manager from Tokyo Electric Power Co. explained how the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant had been slammed by a mammoth tsunami, rocked by hydrogen explosions and become highly radioactive. Some workers wept.

That was the scene at J-Village, 12 miles south of the plant, on the night of March 15. Hundreds of firefighters, members of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces and workers from Tokyo Electric Power convened there, arguing long and loudly about how best to restore cooling systems and prevent nuclear fuel from overheating. Complicating matters, a lack of phone service meant that they had little input from upper management.

“There were so many ideas, the meeting turned into a panic,” said one longtime Tokyo Electric veteran present that day.

He made the comments in an interview with The New York Times, one of several interviews that provided a rare glimpse of the crisis as the company’s workers experienced it.

“There were serious arguments between the various sections about whether to go,” he said, “how to use electrical lines, which facilities to use and so on.”

The quarreling echoed the alarm bells ringing throughout Tokyo Electric, which has been grappling with an unprecedented set of challenges since March 11, when the earthquake and tsunami upended northeastern Japan. It is also a rare glimpse, through interviews, emails and blog posts, into the problems faced by the thousands of often anxious but eager Tokyo Electric Power employees working to re-establish order.

Many of them — especially the small number charged with approaching damaged reactors and exposing themselves to unusually high doses of radiation — are viewed as heroes, preventing the world’s second worst nuclear calamity from becoming even more dire.

But unlike their bosses, who appear daily in blue work coats to apologize to the public and explain why the company has not yet succeeded in taming the reactors, the front-line workers have remained almost entirely anonymous.

In the interviews and in some email and published blog items, several line workers expressed frustration at the slow pace of the recovery efforts, sometimes conflicting orders from their bosses and unavoidable hurdles like damaged roads. In many cases, the line workers want the public to know that they feel remorse for the nuclear crisis, but also that they are trying their best to fix it.

“My town is gone,” wrote a worker named Emiko Ueno, in an email obtained by The Times. “My parents are still missing. I still cannot get in the area because of the evacuation order. I still have to work in such a mental state. This is my limit.”

At the top, a manager who circulated her note urged his workers to “please think about what you can do for Fukushima after reading this email.”

Tokyo Electric keeps a tight lid on its workers under normal circumstances, and workers say they risk censure for speaking out. Some, however, have become lightning rods. Soon after the crisis began, Mitsuko Otsuki, who worked at the Daiichi plant after the earthquake, wrote on a social media site, called Mixi, that Tokyo Electric workers were trying hard and risking their lives to repair the plant.

She apologized for the confusion and the insecurity that people felt as a result of the nuclear accident. But Otsuki soon removed the post from her site because, she said, people had misinterpreted what she meant to say. It was too early, she added, to ask people to stop being critical of Tokyo Electric.

In the early days after the earthquake and tsunami, many Tokyo Electric workers had little time to speak out. An explosion had blown the roof off of one of the reactor buildings in Fukushima, heightening fears of large-scale radiation exposure. To stabilize the reactors and restart cooling systems, the company rushed to reconnect the power plant to the electric grid.

In Tokyo, bosses at Tokyo Electric ordered transmission and distribution teams to prepare their gear, including tons of batteries, cables and transformers. On March 14, workers were told that the assignment was dangerous and that they could opt out. Few did. Many workers felt duty-bound to go to Fukushima, particularly those with families who were directly affected by the earthquake and tsunami.

One worker said in an interview that he left for Fukushima on March 15. His convoy had free rein on the highways, which had been cleared for utility vehicles. The local roads were slower going because parts of some streets had literally disappeared.

After heated arguments about how to proceed during the impromptu meeting at J-Village, teams went to the Daiichi plant March 16. Everyone wore a mask and special suit. There, they jury-rigged a connection that carried electricity from a nearby substation to the plant.

“I wanted to plug in the cable as soon as possible so the plant would have power again, but the nuclear people wanted to check the safety of various instruments first,” the worker said. “I was so excited to do something that I couldn’t stand the slow speed of the decision making.”

Soon, the team split up and some workers went to a nearby substation. When the power lines were connected, the workers retreated to J-Village to wait. The next day, their patience was rewarded.

At J-Village on March 18, several dozen Tokyo Electric workers who had completed their tasks were killing time when their boss walked to a white board where their to-do list was written. Next to the last item, he wrote the character “ryo,” which means “good” or, in this case, “completed.”

“I’ll never forget the moment when the manager told us we were done,” said the longtime Tokyo Electric veteran present that day. “Everyone started yelling and crying.”

Many of the workers also used their cellphone cameras to take pictures of the white board and the character, which was circled in red ink. Lacking beer, the worker and his friends celebrated by sharing two bottles of Coca-Cola.

“The bubbles tasted so good,” he said.

Before heading back to Tokyo, the workers were tested to see how much radiation they had absorbed. No one, it turned out, had taken in inordinate amounts. They were tested again at the National Institute of Radiological Sciences in Chiba.

Back in Tokyo, the workers were given a day off. Many slept while others were glued to the television, captivated by the images from the power plants they had just worked to repair.

“I couldn’t sleep when I came back,” the worker said. “I was exhausted, but I was also excited. I couldn’t stop watching television.”

But like several false dawns in the effort to control the plant, the work they did to extend electrical power to the facility has yet to provide the turning point it once seemed to promise. The main reactor buildings are either too badly damaged, or too laden with radioactivity, to readily reconnect plumbing and electrical systems. And fellow workers at the plant now face even more severe hazards in keeping the reactors cool by pouring water on the fuel in the reactors and spent fuel pools.

Even in the Tokyo office of the power company, the lights and heaters are shut off to save energy. Many people wear coats at their desks and go home when it gets dark. The nuclear crisis is far from over; their company faces possible bankruptcy or nationalization, and many workers fear for their jobs.


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