Masao Yoshida, the plant manager who led the fight to bring Japan’s Fukushima atomic station under control during the 2011 nuclear disaster, has died. He was 58.
He died Tuesday of esophagus cancer at a Tokyo hospital, according to a statement from Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. The illness was unrelated to the radiation exposure after the nuclear accident, according to the company.
Yoshida, an engineer by training, directed workers to stop the reactors from overheating after Japan’s strongest earthquake on record and an ensuing tsunami hit the plant on March 11, 2011, causing the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. He stayed at the plant, overseeing the disaster response for almost nine months.
“I cannot imagine how hard it was for him,” Tatsujiro Suzuki, vice chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, said. “He had to make a decision that most of the on-site workers should leave because the situation was getting worse, and he also had to have some of his staff remain to work with him. That was probably the hardest decision he ever had to make.”
Yoshida stepped down from his post on Dec. 1, 2011. Officials from Tepco, as Tokyo Electric is known, disclosed his cancer eight days later.
“We deeply appreciate his contribution and the way he handled the accident,” Tepco President Naomi Hirose said in the statement. “It is very sad that we cannot work together with him to rebuild the company.”
Yoshida was born in Osaka in 1955. After studying nuclear engineering at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, Yoshida joined Tepco in 1979. He was appointed head of the Fukushima Daiichi plant in June 2010.
As radiation levels spiked in the early days of the crisis, workers were pulled out of the plant — leaving behind those who became known as the Fukushima 50, risking their lives to bring the reactors under control.
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 initially said it would penalize Yoshida, even though Sakae Muto, then a vice president at the company, said it was a technically appropriate decision. Yoshida received no more than a verbal reprimand after then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan defended the plant chief, the Yomiuri newspaper reported.
The 2011 earthquake and tsunami left more than 18,000 people dead or missing and forced the evacuation of 160,000, eventually prompting the idling of all but two of Japan’s 50 functioning reactors for safety checks.
Yoshida thought several times that workers at the plant would die, he told reporters who visited the Fukushima station in November 2011. Yoshida had thought plant operators might completely lose control as the meltdowns accelerated, he told reporters.
“If Yoshida wasn’t there, the disaster could have been much worse,” said Reiko Hachisuka, the head of a business group in the town of Okuma, where the station was located, and one of the panel members who investigated the accident. His charisma made “workers at the Fukushima plant believe they could die for Yoshida,” she said.
“He was such a born leader that his subordinates were ready to die alongside him,” said Ryusho Kadota, who interviewed Yoshida and other members of the Fukushima 50 for his book, loosely translated as “The Man Who Stared Down Death.” “If Yoshida hadn’t been plant manager, Tokyo would be a no-man’s land right now.”