Fukushima's N-plant ‘retreat’ misreported globally

Fukushima's N-plant ‘retreat’ misreported globally

Incomplete reports on interviews conducted with Masao Yoshida, manager of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant during the March 2011 crisis, as part of a government investigation of the disaster, caused serious misunderstandings among foreign media.

The government plans to disclose the collected interviews to the public in early September despite Yoshida's request before his death not to do so.

A headline in The New York Times dated May 20 read "Panicked Workers Fled Fukushima Plant in 2011 Despite Orders, Record Shows." The Times of London carried an article on May 22 that said: "Far from being heroic exemplars of the samurai spirit, 90 per cent of the workers at Fukushima [plant] fled, disobeying orders to remain in the stricken plant." A headline in The Australian on May 22 said: "Fukushima 'heroes' actually fled in fear."

Major overseas media published such shocking reports in May, saying that 90 per cent of workers at the Fukushima No. 1 plant had reportedly abandoned the facility and fled to the Fukushima No. 2 nuclear power plant located about 10 kilometers to the south.

These articles were based on a front-page story in the May 20 issue of The Asahi Shimbun that said, "90 per cent of workers at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant disobeyed Yoshida's orders and withdrew from plant buildings." The foreign media quoted the article, as The Asahi Shimbun had reportedly gained access to the confidential records of interviews with Yoshida.

Among foreign media, South Korean media were particularly critical. A leading South Korean newspaper reported that workers at Fukushima had fled from the accident site just like the crew fled when the ferry Sewol sank, referring to the fact that the ship's captain saved himself rather than save his passengers following the accident. Based on the information, the Kukmin Daily also described the crisis as Japan's version of the Sewol incident.

However, no descriptions were found in the interview saying that Yoshida thought his workers had disobeyed his orders or retreated from the accident site.

On the morning of March 15, 2011, four days after a series of accidents occurred following the earthquake and tsunami, the sound of an explosion was heard at the Fukushima No. 1 plant. Yoshida felt there was a possibility of a nuclear containment vessel's having been damaged and he instructed his staff, except for the minimum number of workers deemed necessary, to temporarily evacuate to nearby locations that would likely have lower radiation levels. The workers evacuated to the No. 2 plant by car.

In the records of the interviews, Yoshida stated: "As a matter of fact, I didn't tell them to go to 2F [the Fukushima No. 2 plant]." Taken separately, this remark could be interpreted as suggesting that the workers disobeyed his orders. However, Yoshida continued, saying, "But after careful consideration, their move to 2F was by far a better decision, I thought."

In other words, Yoshida thought the workers' decision to head for the No. 2 plant had turned out to be right. Yoshida believed the staff did not act as he instructed partly because of confusion due to the fact that the orders were conveyed among workers by word of mouth. Yoshida also stated in the interviews that he did not use the term "full retreat."

However, The Asahi Shimbun reported in its May 20 morning edition that plant workers "had disobeyed [Yoshida's] orders" and "withdrew" to the No. 2 plant, while making no reference whatsoever to his statement that he thought their decision was appropriate. The report then spread instantly around the world.

The plant workers who had worked hard around-the-clock to deal with the crisis in the wake of the accident had been praised as "nameless brave men who saved Japan" by European and US media.

A former worker who had continued to work at a quake-resistant building at the No. 1 plant with Yoshida despite the risk to his life was angry about the Asahi Shimbun's report, saying: "Retreat was never an option. It was a grave mistake to say so. I even sense some malicious intent. We had a strong bond of trust with Yoshida."

Yoshida died in July last year.

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