Examples In Leadership: Masao Yoshida

Written by fukuleaks.org/web member Peter Melzer, this article originally appeared on his blog.

山は動かない [武田 信玄]。

Last Tuesday, Jul. 9, 2013, Masao Yoshida passed away. He was 58. He had esophageal cancer.

Until his illness forced him to relinquish his post late in 2011, Masao Yoshida was superintendent of Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (TEPCO)Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station on Japan’s northeast coast less than 100 miles north of Tokyo. Yoshida led the power station through the most severe nuclear reactor crisis since the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. Four of six reactors lost all power as a result of the Great Tōhoku Earthquake and Tsunami on Mar. 11, 2011; three were operating. The other was shutdown for inspection, and the fuel had been moved to an adjacent storage pool.

Despite heroic efforts of Yoshida and his crew, the three operating reactors lost cooling, and their fuel melted down. Vast quantities of hydrogen were released into the reactor buildings. Three were devastated by violent explosions. The fourth was spared, because Yoshida’s men managed to open a blow out panel. Large quantities of radioactivity spewed into the air for days, contaminating a wide swath of Fukushima Prefecture and adjoining areas. The Government of Japan declared an exclusion zone around the power station. Roughly 160,000 residents had to be evacuated. At present, about half are still not permitted to return home permanently.

Confronted with the earthquake, flooding, aftershocks and the reactors spinning out of control, Yoshida sent most workers home, but convinced a crew of 50 essential operators to stay with him behind in a quake-resistent command center. The men attempted desperately to keep the nuclear fuel in the reactors and in adjacent storage pools cool and covered with water. After fresh water was exhausted, he ordered to use salt water for cooling against the wishes of TEPCO headquarters. The salt would render the reactors irreparable. TEPCO management had clung to the vain hope of being able to operate them again one day.

In a rare interview months later published online Nov. 13, 2011, by The Asahi Shimbun under the headline “Nuke plant director: ‘I thought several times that I would die’“, Yoshida admitted that he at times believed during the first days of the crisis that he and his men were about to die. He added that he felt that the worst was over only after three months. Despite, Yoshida ascertained that abandoning his post never crossed his mind. The fuel in the two remaining reactors could be cooled with jury-rigged electric pumps, because one emergency diesel generator had survived. Yoshida pointed out that the fuel in these reactors would have inevitably melted as well had the crew retreated from the site.

A power company is no military organization. Operators cannot be ordered to stay on their posts in the face of adversity. They could have walked away anytime. Without doubt, Masao Yoshida’s exemplary leadership during the crisis and his sense of duty encouraged the crew to stay with him and fight a dangerously deteriorating situation, risking life and limb, if not cancer years down the road. Their motives were pure. They wanted to prevent the worst. Yoshida mentioned to a reporter that the families of most operators who stayed with him lived in the area.

At the time he had to take sick leave, Yoshida remarked that cleaning up and decommissioning the stricken power station was only at the beginning. The path ahead would lead through uncharted territory strewn with unprecedented challenges. He felt that the task before the operators would be colossal. One nation alone would not be able to cope with it. Rather, a concerted effort of the international community was needed to accomplish the job.

Against Yoshida’s advice, little international collaboration has come forth to date. TEPCO, a company versed in selling electric power, has been struggling with containing radioactive effluent and removing radioactive debris. Sprawling tank farms have been erected to store the water contaminated by its use for keeping the reactors cool. Long rows of heavy-clad storage bins contain the collected debris. A decontamination facility has been set up for the stored water, but is not quite operational yet, while radioactivity is increasing in the groundwater near the reactors and is consistently detected in the ocean. Removal of the fuel elements from the storage pools has not even started. Nobody knows precisely where the melted fuel in the reactors resides and how to extract it.

In honor of Masao Yoshida and in memory of his advice, an international not-for-profit foundation should be created bearing his name. The foundation should provide expert advice facilitating the succinct and expeditious cleanup of Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station, using novel methods and best practices, with the aim that the residents of the villages and towns around the stricken power station can soon return home for good. The world owes this effort to Masao Yoshida and the Fukushima Fifty whose families used to live there.


I thank fukuleaks.org/web for keeping me up to date with recent developments at Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station.


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