Almost one year removed from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, PBS Frontline producer Dan Edge takes viewers “Inside Japan’s Nuclear Meltdown” with rare footage from inside the plant and eyewitness testimony, in “Inside Japan¹s Nuclear Meltdown,” airing Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2012, at 10 P.M. ET on PBS (check local listings).
The opening scenes of the documentary set the tone for the rest of the film with previously unseen footage of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and continues through on-site video footage and hours of interviews that the lessons learned from the Fukushima Daiichi disaster remain important for the world. After the earthquake fisherman in northern Japan share how they pulled their boats out to sea, based upon the knowledge that “tsunami will follow the earthquake”, a fact about a potential that TEPCO constantly underestimated.
Families and survivors in the video are faced with the surreal realization that their homes have been destroyed by a tsunami, which leaves much of the land completely changed on the surface, and then forced to flee from the invisible threat from Fukushima Daiichi. Survivors from the town near Fukushima Daiichi huddled in a local sports center until evacuation orders were given, and even a year later it is clear to see the obvious state of shock as they are moved out of the exclusion zone, not knowing what the next hour or day would bring.
In the darkest moments of last year’s nuclear accident, Japanese leaders did not know the actual extent of damage at the plant and secretly considered the possibility of evacuating Tokyo, even as they tried to play down the risks in public. The stories as told by some of the respondents give a better description of key events, and help explain how residents and responders were left without accurate information to make their own critical life-and-death choices.
Less than 24 hours after the earthquake and tsunami, both TEPCO and PM Kan knew the cores were melted and that hydrogen was being produced, but the utility was not sharing all the information it knew about the lack of ability the workers really had to carry out critical operations on-site. Workers were sent into Reactor 1 to attempt to release some of the pressure that was building up inside of the reactors, into a placed described as “Not a place for humans”, pitch-black, over 100 degrees, high radiation levels, and where condensation dripping all around.
Workers were able to open the vents manually, but high radiation levels force them to cycle quickly, each person completing a limited amount of steps at a time. These actions ultimately did not prevent the previously “unthinkable” from occurring. When Reactor 1 exploded, the ground swelled and acted as if an earthquake and aftershocks were hitting the site, causing one engineer in the control room to be thrown a foot off of his chair. The radiation levels on-site rose for over an hour before stabilizing.
After explosions ripped apart the reactor building structures at Fukushima Daiichi Units 1, 3, and 4, the on-site workforce was reduced to a skeleton crew of workers, which were constantly working with confused flows of sometimes contradictory information in the early days of the crisis.
A repeating failure in nuclear disasters is the lack of extensive knowledge of damage that comes out of the affected plant, which forces leaders to make decisions without being able to adequately assess all available options and potential ramifications. The documentary revolves around events that occurred in the first 10 days of the nuclear disaster, and incorporates rare video footage of events.
The storyline in part depicts the struggle to obtain accurate information felt by Prime Minister Kan, and an American nuclear regulator Chuck Castro who was limited watching the events at Fukushima Daiichi unfold from live television feeds in Japan, alongside of the personal stories of many of the workers who were attempting to battle the invisible enemy in the form of radiation that was spewing out of the crippled reactors. Kan and other officials began discussing a worst-case outcome of an evacuation of workers at the Fukushima Daiichi plant that would include an evacuation area of over 300 km, including the most notable city in Japan, Tokyo.
The film highlights the risks faced by many of the responders, not all of which were equipped with detection equipment, and were not aware of high radiation areas on site as they picked their way around off-limit areas where “fuel flakes” were scattered on the ground. Many of the events like the explosion at reactor 3 as told by Col. Shinji Iwakuma one of the emergency respondents who traveled from Southern Japan up to the crippled reactors also highlight the risk that was involved in many of the early operations;
“Just as we were about to get out of the car to connect the hose,” it exploded. Radioactive matter was leaking in through the bindings of our masks due to the blast. Our dosimeter alarms were ringing constantly.”
Also highlighted are frantic discussions with top officials in the Kan government, in which TEPCO’s officials gave mixed reports of events on-site, forcing Prime Minister Kan to travel to the crippled Fukushima Daiichi reactors to find out why venting was not being performed, and another scenario that unfolded as Tepco’s president, Masataka Shimizu, was making phone calls to the prime minister’s office saying the company should evacuate all of its staff, but the plant manager, Masao Yoshida argued he would be able to restore control of the reactors if the staff remained on site.
Only recently have investigations found that the company had in fact said it wanted a total pull out and credit the former Prime Minister with making the right decision in forcing TEPCO not to abandon the plant. “Prime Minister Kan had his minuses and he had his lapses,” the report said, “but his decision to storm into Tepco and demand that it not give up saved Japan.”
Yoshida, who has now retired due to health problems which TEPCO asserts are not related to radiation from the Fukushima disaster, came under fire in the months after the March 11th tragedy, most notable for his refusal to obey orders straight from TEPCO headquarters not to use sea water to cool the reactors, which were facing imminent meltdown without cooling.
The FRONTLINE documentary presents the viewer with an entire film filled with information-packed scene after scene, and uses many video clips not aired in the United States on national television which pull the audience into the plant as it experiences the world’s first nuclear meltdown at multiple reactors. While many of the ramifications and radiological details remain undisclosed or unknown at this time, the documentary fluidly highlights the fact that the story that was repeated from the early hours of March 11th did not at all convey the shock and uproar behind the scenes in political meetings and on-site at Fukushima Daiichi. The hour-long event will leave viewers with an inside view of part of the challenges faced by evacuees and respondents alike, and will hopefully allow Americans another chance to reflect on the tragedy in Japan and the lessons to be learned around the world.
“Inside Japan’s Nuclear Meltdown” is a Quicksilver Media production for WGBH/FRONTLINE. The writer, producer and director is Dan Edge. The executive producer for Quicksilver is Eamonn Matthews. The series senior producer of FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath. The executive producer of FRONTLINE is David Fanning.
FRONTLINE is produced by WGBH Boston and is broadcast nationwide on PBS.
Funding for FRONTLINE is provided through the support of PBS viewers and by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Major funding for FRONTLINE is provided by The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and by Reva and David Logan. Additional funding is provided by the Park Foundation and the FRONTLINE Journalism Fund. FRONTLINE is closed-captioned for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers by the Media Access Group at WGBH. FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of WGBH Educational Foundation.