Masao Yoshida confronted a horror few can conceive, and he stood his ground.
Japan’s great and good, prime ministers old and new, joined Yoshida’s family and colleagues yesterday in paying a final tribute to the man who died last month after leading the fight against the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the country’s worst since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 68 years ago.
More than 1,000 people attended the memorial in Tokyo, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who laid flowers at an altar before a framed picture of Yoshida in blue work overalls. Beside that were a towel and megaphone with the logo of his favorite baseball team, the Hanshin Tigers.
“Yoshida must be unhappy with what’s happening now,” said Naomi Hirose, the president of the Fukushima plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co., a reference to recent revelations of radioactive water leaks at the site.
Yoshida, an engineer and the manager of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear station on March 11, 2011, ordered the evacuation of thousands of non-essential personnel after the biggest earthquake in Japan’s recorded history hit the area. He made more staff leave as the tsunami that followed knocked out power, causing meltdowns at three reactors and a surge in radiation.
He then had to make another decision: Who should stay as reactor buildings exploded, radiation readings continued to rise and aftershocks threatened more damage.
That decision must have been the most difficult of his life, Tatsujiro Suzuki, vice chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, said in an interview on July 10, the day after Yoshida died at age 58 in a Tokyo hospital of esophageal cancer.
The engineers that remained with Yoshida risked their lives to get the reactors under control in the following weeks and months. They became known as the Fukushima Fifty.
Spain gave the Fukushima Fifty the Prince of Asturias Award for Concord in September 2011, calling them the “heroes of Fukushima.”
On March 12, a day after the tsunami, Yoshida ignored an order from Tepco headquarters to stop pumping seawater into a reactor to try to cool it because of concerns that ocean water would corrode the equipment.
Tepco said it would penalize Yoshida, then backed off after then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan defended him, the Yomiuri newspaper reported. He stayed at the plant, helming the disaster response for almost nine months.
Kan attended the memorial and spoke of his deep regret when he heard of Yoshida’s death.
The 2011 earthquake and tsunami left more than 18,000 people dead or missing, while radiation leaks forced the evacuation of 160,000 people, eventually prompting the idling of all but two of Japan’s 50 reactors for safety checks.
Author Ryusho Kadota, who interviewed Yoshida and other members of the Fifty for his book “The Man Who Stared Down Death,” said the station head was a born leader.
Speaking in an interview after Yoshida died, he said: “If Yoshida hadn’t been plant manager, Tokyo would be a no-man’s land right now.”