“We Saw The Cracks...” A Fukushima Worker Recalls Quake, Ponders Fate
The Japanese nuclear plant, which continues to burn and emit radioactivity, was the lifeblood for people like Yutaka Takano, who was on the afternoon shift when disaster struck.
SAITAMA - Like his father and brother-in-law before him, Yutaka Takano was hired straight out of high school at the local nuclear plant.
Currently, he resides on two square meters of carpet on the 5th floor of a building in this Tokyo suburb. Called the "Saitama Super Arena," the cavernous structure that usually hosts rock concerts has become the temporary home for some of the thousands like Takano displaced from Futamabashi and Okumabashi, the northern Japanese cities in the shadow of the Fukushima nuclear plant.
The young man's father, Yoichi, 47, and his brother-in-law Kakuo, 22, have built a cardboard wall around the rectangle occupied by the family. After folding his orange blanket, Yutaka, 19, puts his manga comic books into a backpack, laces his sneakers and adjusts the mask he's wearing to hide a slight cough.
The Takano family was evacuated on March 12 from their house in Okumabashi, after the first fire broke out in the nuclear power plant. The day before, Yutaka had arrived at work for the afternoon shift at around 1 p.m. "It was a day like any other," he recalls. "It took me a few minutes to put on my TEPCO (the Tokyo Electric Power Company) overalls. Then I poured myself a cup of coffee." Yutaka proceeded to his usual tasks, which included checking the temperature of the plant's external water pipes.
At 2:45 p.m. the ground started shaking for the first time. Yutaka and his colleagues immediately sensed that the earthquake would be different than anything that had come before. "The sirens went off. We got out of the building and went to a central meeting place."
The young man's recollections of the immediate aftermath are hesitant and fuzzy. But subsequent events were permanently engraved in his memory: the monster earthquake that seemed to throw the entire building towards the sky and, 30 minutes later, the thudding sound of the eight-meter high wave that came crashing near the plant, sweeping everything in its path. And then, darkness, followed by the pale light of flashing emergency neon.
There was a long wait and uncertainty, and then suddenly a hasty departure from the site. "We all saw the cracks in the walls at Fukushima I, and we understood that something very serious was about to happen."
Yukata's testimony is not unusual. He is not one of the engineers in charge of the Fukushima plant, and he has dealt neither with the reactors, nor with the spent fuel pools. He has not set foot on the site since the day of the earthquake. And he does not know any of the employees left behind, the famous "atomic samurais' whose bravery and sense of service have left much of Japan in awe.
And yet, this man's young age, his account of the events, his family background say much about TEPCO's hold over this region, about 250 km north of Tokyo. His father, a former electrician at Fukushima II, had helped the boy find a job after graduation. "As for all my colleagues, neighbors, and friends, Fukushima is part of our life since childhood," he says.
Is Yukata angry now? Of course he is. He is angry with TEPCO, with the way it lied during past safety inspections, with its refusal to even consider the possibility of an earthquake of this magnitude. He is also mad at the government, which first brought Yukata and the other displaced people to a poorly heated school building during sub-freezing days and nights.
But Yukata also knows that things might have been even worse. "We have all been tested for radiation, and we are OK," he says. He does not know if he will ever want to work at Fukushima again. "It is too early to tell."
In the impressive Saitama building now serving as a giant dormitory, there are children running everywhere. Elderly people are sleeping where they can. Men are talking to volunteers wearing green jackets who are part of the "national network of support for disaster" in place since the Kobe earthquake in 1995.
Those displaced by the radiation risks know they will probably be here until the end of the month. There are plans to temporarily house them in schools during upcoming spring school holidays. But when classes resume, where will they go then?
Read the original article in French
Photo - (Daveeza)