On March 11, 2011 Japan was struck by a 9.1-magnitude earthquake, the most powerful in the country’s recorded history. But the real horror had only just begun. A 14-meter-high tsunami created by the seismic event followed, sending giant waves of seawater crashing into the the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, triggering a nuclear disaster. While the world watched in horror, the responsibility of containing the disaster fell on workers who had to risk their lives to salvage the plant — and protect the planet. In this episode of Teamistry, host Gabriela Cowperthwaite takes us through the harrowing experience that no amount of training could’ve prepared the team for. Former plant superintendent Atsufumi Yoshizawa describes the scenes from the frontlines and how a method called “Resilience Engineering” helped his team prevent total meltdown. You’ll also hear from operations manager Akira Hogyuko as he talks about how trust between team members and seniors helped them navigate the disaster. Plus Lake Barrett, a retired nuclear engineer and consultant on the clean-up effort, helps explain the major events that unfolded in those frightful moments.
Teamistry is an original podcast from Atlassian.
News Clip: One of the most powerful and destructive earthquakes in history has devastated a large area of Japan. Hundreds of people are dead after the 8.9 magnitude quake unleashed a massive tsunami that washed everything away in its path
News Clip: The crisis at the damaged nuclear plant in Japan worsened today...while on the ground 300 brave workers continue to risk their lives to pump water into a storage area for spent fuel rods.
Gabriela: I remember so vividly watching these news reports as they came in, just in horror at what was happening. So shocked, so sad, and worried about how bad the nuclear disaster might get. Would that whole area of Japan become desolate, like Chernobyl? Would the radiation spread to the rest of the country, would it spread around the world? But I have to admit, it wasn’t until a while later that I really imagined what it would have been like for those workers right on the front line, in the power plant, doing everything they could to contain the crisis.
Lake Barrett: They knew something very, very serious had happened... something that they were not trained to cope with.
Gabriela: The story of those workers, the people who risked their lives to contain the disaster, has rarely been heard...
Yoshizawa: A lot of people who worked at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant were from the area or lived in Fukushima. Their first thought was protecting their neighbourhood and their family and relatives. They were driven emotionally to protect.
Gabriela: I’m Gabriela Cowperthwaite and this is Teamistry, an original podcast from Atlassian. This show is all about the chemistry of teams...and what happens when people are so open to new ideas of working, innovating and expressing themselves together, they end up doing something amazing.
Lake Barrett: It was a normal day. It was a late winter/early spring period, which means there was a lot of maintenance going on at the site. There was probably about 3,000 to 4,000 people on that site.
Gabriela: That’s Lake Barrett. He’s a retired nuclear engineer. He also worked as a consultant for the cleanup at Fukushima. And as he says, on Friday, March 11, 2011, a lot of work was going on at the plant. Of Fukushima’s six nuclear reactors, only the first three were operating at full power. Reactor Four had no radioactive material loaded into its core, but had some in a cooling pool, while reactors five and six were shut down for regular maintenance. Oh, and just to place you geographically, even though the plant is relatively isolated on the east coast of Japan, it’s still close to a lot of people. Sendai, a city of a million, is only 75 miles away. Even Tokyo, with over 9 million people, is just 150 miles down the coast. But nobody was worried about that because at this moment, everything was stable and within normal parameters at Fukushima.
Lake Barrett: And then, when the earthquake struck, then the situation changed very rapidly.
Yoshizawa: I had just returned to my office after having done an on site inspection of the power plant. When the earthquake struck, I was in the corridor at the time. I wasn't able to stand. I got on my hands and knees and waited for the shaking to stop.
Gabriela: That’s Atsufumi Yoshizawa. In March of 2011, he was a Superintendent at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
Yoshizawa: I realized it was a big earthquake and relatively quickly I went to the quake proof building and there were already a number of people there. And gradually, a lot of people had gathered at this emergency countermeasures room.
Lake Barrett: The people in the control room immediately knew a seismic event was occurring. Now if it's a very minor event, the reactors keep producing power. If it's a major shock, the reactor automatically scrams, meaning the control rods are automatically inserted.
Gabriela: Ok, if you’re not a nuclear engineer, here’s what’s going on at Fukushima. The power plant uses boiling water reactors. Which means the intense, radioactive heat created by nuclear fission is cooled by water. During the cooling, the water turns into steam which drives a series of turbines, creating electrical power. Afterwards, the steam is condensed and returns to the cores to start the process of cooling the nuclear reactors again. When the earthquake hit, an automatic system did exactly what it was designed to do and stopped the fission reaction in the active cores, one, two and three. But there is still residual heat. Which means water still needs to be pumped in. That’s being done by emergency diesel generators because the earthquake had cut the plant off from it’s external power supply.
Lake Barrett: The operators were trained for this type of event, so they brought out their emergency procedure books and went through the normal emergency procedures that they trained on many times to assure the reactor cooling was properly going, and it was.
Gabriela: But things were about to get far, far worse. Immediately after the quake, a warning came in to prepare for a 9 foot tsunami. Fukushima workers weren’t too concerned because the power plant had a seawall to protect them from waves up to 30 feet. As long as the tsunami was lower than that, it wouldn’t flood the plant and disable the crucial generators. Losing them would mean losing the ability to cool and control the radioactive material. Which could lead to a meltdown. Less than an hour later, the wave arrived. It was 45 feet high.
Yoshizawa: The very first call I got was that the emergency power generator that had been working at the power plant had stopped. Because we’re nuclear engineers, we always have in our minds the calculation costs of what would happen if the electricity gets cut. So we were able to grasp just how enormous the situation was. You know that feeling, of getting chills down your spine...
Lake Barrett: And so...the battery panels and most of the reactors also were flooded. So, the lights started to go out in the control rooms and eventually it went totally black.... The operators knew at that point this was a very, very serious situation. And that was basically the start of the hellish situation that they found themselves in as they coped to restore cooling to the reactors.
Gabriela: “Hellish” is almost an understatement. At this point, most of the power is out, workers are having to feel around blindly in the dark. A whole series of alarms are ringing out all over the power plant. Here’s what they’re facing: if the reactors are no longer being cooled, the water that was there will evaporate into radioactive steam, exposing the fuel rods. The rods will keep heating, to over 2000 degrees, eventually melting and possibly escaping the core. All the while, radioactive gas is building up inside the reactors. There is no plan B to deal with all of this. In fact, they’re going to need a brand new strategy because a very bad situation is on the verge of turning into a nuclear catastrophe.
Lake Barrett: So, they were working feverishly under very difficult conditions to find some way to depressurize the systems and to inject water.
Gabriela: Since all the generators have been knocked out by the tsunami, what they desperately need is electricity.
Lake Barrett: During that night it was dark. They had a human chain where they were actually pulling cables. These electrical cables weighed probably about a hundred pounds every 10 feet and they pulled cables over a thousand feet long that weighed tons, to bring down new electrical cables to get to some of the pumps to energize the pumps to inject water.
Gabriela: It’s the day after the tsunami, March 12 and despite desperate attempts, things in reactor one are out of control. Hydrogen, a by-product of the meltdown, which catches fire when mixed with air, is leaking into the building housing the reactor.
News Clip: There’s been an explosion at one of the reactors and a fire is also burning. Officials say the blaze is in a storage pond and that radioactive steam has been released into the atmosphere.
Yoshizawa: At that time when reactor one exploded I was at an off site centre and I was extremely worried about what was happening at the plant. At that time I had two options. One was to stay at the off site centre and conduct operations from there. ... The other choice was to put aside my duties and head back to tackle the situation on site. What crossed my mind at that time was somehow saving reactors five and six which were my responsibility. Everyone with me at the off site centre at the time said the same thing: ‘Let’s all return together’
Gabriela: Of the original three or four thousand workers at Fukushima when the quake struck, many had been evacuated. Evacuated to regions not under threat of a nuclear meltdown but reeling from massive quake and tsunami damage. But at the plant, faced with a growing crisis, a number of the workers still there decide to stay while others who had been working offsite return, like Atsufumi, the superintendent we’ve been hearing from. Akira Hogyuko is an operations manager who worked with Atsufumi but hadn’t been at the plant at the time of the quake. After the tsunami, he helped evacuate his family then decided the next day, today, to return to Fukushima, knowing full well it could be a suicide mission.
Akira: When I called my family, the explosion had already happened. Before returning to the powerplant, I explained on the phone to my wife that this could be the end.
Gabriela: Lake Barrett explains the situation Akira and other workers were walking into...
Lake Barrett: It was very difficult in those first days as they had very little food. They didn't have running toilets. People would sleep under a desk... And many of them didn't know what the situation was with their families.
Gabriela: Since the power was down and the country’s infrastructure was crippled, most of the team at Fukushima didn’t know what was happening in the rest of the country, let alone if their families were safe.
Yoshizawa: Nobody likes working in a dangerous situation. The workers undertook work on site and did those risks because they were on a mission. In particular, a lot of people who worked at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant were from the area or lived in Fukushima. Their first thought was protecting their neighbourhood and their family and relatives... I believe they could carry out the work because they felt there was no one else who could. They were emotionally driven to work in this dangerous situation.
Gabriela: Atsufumi is talking about one of the underlying currents in this story, what drove the Fukushima workers into the face of danger, like his team saying “Let’s all return together.” Yes, there’s a personal desire to protect your home and loved ones. But there’s also a cultural drive of extreme dedication. Which explains why the workers felt a sense of responsibility for the disaster. This wasn’t about being heroes, it was about doing what they saw as their duty. And yet that same cultural drive, the system of honour, could also be a hindrance to dealing with the crisis. Lake gives an example...
Lake Barrett: So a lot of times the engineer may say something, they may think something, but until it's verified by another qualified engineer, they're reluctant to necessarily say something ...to the hierarchy above because you have this great respect for those above you. So you don't express your feelings in that culture particularly.
Gabriela: This can sound like blind obedience, but as Akira explains, this system is driven not only by workers’ respect for higher ups like superintendents and managers, but also by trust
Akira: When there’s trouble, people like Atsufumi and the unit managers have the ability to make decisions, because instructions are valued and people below are able to respond without confusion. If top management are confused in their decision making, people will grow anxious. If you trust them you can be calm and take action.
Gabriela: Well,that system of trust and respect might work when things are going by the book, but what happens in a crisis? A crisis that’s about to get worse.
Gabriela: It’s March 14th, three days after the earthquake and tsunami. The Fukushima team is working around the clock to cool the reactors and ease pressure inside the buildings. But all attempts to restore the backup systems, which would properly vent the steam, aren’t working. The building housing reactor three explodes. In the face of all this, Atsufumi was willing to put his faith in the people around him.
Yoshizawa: Certainly people can cause errors and mistakes but on the other hand it’s also true that people have the ability to devise ways on how to improve a situation.
Lake Barrett: So they had to improvise using their engineering skills and their heroic dedication to improvise many things to be able to cool those reactors.
Gabriela: In other words, during a time of crisis, regular procedures won’t cut it. In fact, the Fukushima team needs to broaden their approach because one of the most pressing issues continues to be power. The diesel engines are flooded, outside power lines are down. The team has got to get creative.
Lake Barrett: So they went to the parking lot and they scavenged 12 volt batteries out of cars and buses and trucks, and they physically carried these heavy batteries down up the stairway and to use those to tie into electrical panels to get vital instrumentation data like water level in the reactor.
Gabriela: And work continues to get that water into the reactors...
News Clip: In Japan, desperate efforts continue to avoid a fuel rod meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Specially equipped chinook helicopters dump seawater on reactor number three...
Lake Barrett: Normally you always put fresh water into a reactor, never put in seawater because the corrosion from the salt. But they were running low on freshwater. So... the plant superintendent made the decision, not an easy decision, that we would inject saltwater into the reactors
Gabriela: This is perhaps the biggest gamble they can take, like putting out a fire with another fire. But the helicopters can’t deliver enough water. It needs to be pumped directly into the reactors, something the Fukushima workers are not trained or equipped for. So another team arrives on scene with that kind of expertise: local firefighters.
Yoshizawa: The fire department pumped the water into the nuclear reactors. This kind of idea was put together and executed on site and it was the people who were there who thought of this solution. This is a great example of people as a resource in a crisis, because they can be flexible and resilient.
Gabriela: So, for now, with different teams, including local firefighters pitching in and improvising, sea water is helping to cool the reactors. But there is still the problem of hydrogen gas building up in the reactor buildings. That hydrogen needs to be released, fast.
Yoshizawa: For reactors five and six we were proceeding ahead so that there would not be an explosion. There was a lot of cooperation that was taking place in this case. One of the most important efforts was making holes to prevent a hydrogen explosion.
Gabriela: Drilling holes directly into the sides and roofs of the buildings will release the hydrogen and prevent any further explosions. But like pumping in water, this is not something the nuclear team knows how to do or have the right equipment for. And while there is someone on hand who can do it, a construction worker familiar with the plant, he is not a trained nuclear engineer. He can’t do it alone. He must work hand in hand with the Fukushima team.
Gabriela: The operation is successful. The situation at Fukushima stabilizes. Water is cooling the reactors and the drilled holes have released the hydrogen, averting another explosion.
Yoshizawa: This local worker took on the job of drilling holes based on having mutual trust with our company. When I talk about mutual trust it was something that formed over an extensive association during normal work hours and after work, over drinks. At a time of emergency, that relationship bore fruit and the operation was executed. This is something only people are capable of, not machines alone. People are able to consider a lot of factors and then come up with and execute ideas to the best of our abilities.
Gabriela: Over and over again, as you’ve heard, Atsufumi proclaims his faith in people. That’s because what he saw happen at Fukushima went against the normal procedure for dealing with a crisis, which is all about minimizing human error. Instead, he saw a new team superpower at work: Resilience Engineering. This superpower is about harnessing people’s ability to be innovative and nimble during an unexpected challenge. Finding alternative solutions even if that means throwing out normal protocols. Atsufumi explains in more detail...
Yoshizawa: Within resilience engineering is an attitude of adapting oneself to the requirements of the moment. There are four necessary abilities. The first one is being able to learn from the past. The second is that you must be able respond to what is happening in the present. But to respond adequately to what is happening you need observation skills. Finally, and this is extremely important, you need foresight to know what will happen next.
Gabriela: Drilling those holes into buildings 5 and 6 is an example of how they harnessed their own resilience—how they learned, responded, observed and anticipated. The Fukushima team could anticipate that if they did nothing, the buildings would explode from hydrogen gas. But they had also learned that drilling holes would relieve the pressure. So they responded by drilling the holes with the help of an outside contractor who could operate the equipment. And lastly, they monitored the situation the entire time, confident there would be no explosion while they worked but still aware of the possibility. And so by using Resilience Engineering, with drilling holes, bringing in electricity and water, the Fukushima team was able to respond with innovative and ever changing solutions to a crisis none of them could have imagined. And because they harnessed that team superpower, the reactors stabilized.
Lake Barrett: At the end of the first week, things had turned the corner. The worst was behind us. We still have a tremendous amount of work to do, but nothing was going to be life-threatening after that first week.
Gabriela: In fact, by the end of March, just three weeks after the crisis started, enough power had been restored so that fresh water had replaced sea water in the reactor cooling systems. And by July of 2011, the automatic cooling system was back in operation. The situation was now stable and further disaster had been averted.
Lake Barrett: Well today, I mean eight, nine years later, I mean it's very stable. I mean containments are there. The radiation levels inside the buildings are extremely high so we only can send robots in there. But I mean, as far as the risk to the public at this stage is very low.
Gabriela: But that’s not to say the accident hasn’t taken a toll...
Lake Barrett: Nobody died from radiation, but tens of people died from suicide due to the trauma of the whole thing
Gabriela: In fact, the stress and anxiety caused not only by the disaster, but especially the evacuation, losing one’s home and livelihood, meant that suicide rates in the Fukushima region were far higher than the national average in Japan. The trauma also touched Akira’s life in a devastating way...
Akira: I don't know if I should say...but two years ago my wife passed away. As expected of the stress from the disaster and evacuation she got cancer. So I can say that is how my life has changed a lot.
Lake Barrett: The core operators who stayed there and worked through the situation were extremely important. I mean, if they'd all left, they would not have been able to inject the water and things could have gotten worse. There would have been much greater releases of radioactivity to the environment. ... I mean, these people were heroic.
Gabriela: That’s a word you’ll often find used outside Japan for the Fukushima workers. “Hero.” But the vast majority of them refuse that moniker because in Japan they bear the brunt of the anger over the incident. In fact, many remain anonymous to this day, because they fear reprisals, against themselves and their families. Lost in that reaction, though, is the fact that their sacrifices averted what could have been one of, if not the worst nuclear disasters in history.
Gabriela: What Atsufumi learned through this experience had such a huge impact on him, he wanted to communicate it directly, not through translation. It’s a lesson that revolves around the dark and bright sides of human ability, something he calls “The Human Element.”
Atsufumi: It is very important to focus on entire the human element, not only human error. The human element does include a darkside, which means human error, but also a bright side, which means resilience, flexibility, something like that...We have both kinds of activities and capabilities, but we usually focus on the dark side and retrieving the lessons learnt from the accident. However, the accident also includes the bright side.
Gabriela: As he’s saying this, Atsufumi is drawing a picture, a circle divided in half. He colours in one half of the circle, placing dots on each side. Yin and yang.
Atsufumi: We have to carefully investigate those whole of the human factors, that means we retrieve different a kind of lessons learned from what a human have to be there, that would be a very important factor for enhancing resilience potentials using the resilience engineering methodology.
Gabriela: Atsufumi won’t accept the title of “hero,” but he is still very proud of his team.
Yoshizawa: Attitude, that’s the thing that they had which was based on wanting to protect their local region, along with leadership, followership and mutual trust. I saw this strong attitude right in front of my eyes. It was a very intense situation and I was blessed with such a wonderful group of people. For me, they are a precious treasure.
Gabriela: The team at Fukushima improvised solutions to an unforeseeable challenge and avoided a greater disaster. To find out more about this superpower, check out the “extras” page at atlassian dot com slash Teamistry. And subscribe to the show because next time we travel to the Antarctic in 1914 to find out why Ernest Shackleton’s failure can be such an inspiration, even to the folks at NASA. That’s coming up on Teamistry, an original podcast from Atlassian.
Gabriela: Thanks for listening.