Review of the BBC’s This World: ‘Inside the Meltdown’

The BBC documentary, Inside the Meltdown, on the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear power plant is oddly powerful in its depiction of the savage destructive nature of the environment as it battered and subsequently caused the meltdown of the Fukushima plant. Other depictions from the documentary worth noting are a chaotic and near criminal power company TEPCO (not hyperbole—TEPCO employs many yakuza), and a prime minister faced with terrifying choices all of which may lead to disaster, while having to depend on the advice of TEPCO. I should note that even if you think you’ve seen this story, you haven’t. Much of the footage and dialogue is unique and revealed for the first time.

It has a very grim, quality—warning the viewer that this could happen again. It is well worth the viewing. The documentary presents scenes of utter chaos at Fukushima, in the halls of power in Tokyo, in other halls of power – TEPCO and its plant- in which it is clear that although Prime Minister Kan comes across as decisive and determined, the TEPCO plant management at Fukushima is not concerned with either communicating the true nature of the unfolding disaster or cooperating with safety engineers or first responders on the ground. TEPCO is primarily concerned with keeping the true nature of the unfolding disaster a secret and with making as few decisions as possible. Ordinary men, not executives, are the stars of this documentary.

Japanese working men within TEPCO, in their white jumpsuits, the firefighters, soldiers, and even the Americans in helicopters spraying water into the reactors– they are young, frightened, and determined. Saying quietly that they have talked to their wives and they are prepared to die. At moments they pray. We know that the workers may get out alive but the consequences may be just as deadly to their health after prolonged exposure to radioactive debris.

Oddly enough, Prime Minister Kan is a star too. Yes, it may be BBC spin but it is pretty convincing spin. Despite the bad press he garnered at the time he comes across as sober, quiet, sad, but driven to avert the worst. He is portrayed as a leader trying to avoid total disaster within his country. He is taking huge risks, trying to juggle many impossible options, knowing that each one will result in loss of life but trying to figure out which would result in the least loss of life.

The documentary’s power comes partly from its depiction of Mother Nature, the earthquake and tsunami waves; battering waves that crest and smash the protective seawalls. TEPCO engineers have been banned from giving interviews but a few, in jumpsuits, masked, voices disguised, are doing so now. Dark bodies silhouetted against a grid, speaking in a hush. They suggest that TEPCO does not appear to have any idea of what to do. Prime Minister Kan says at one point in the documentary, bemusedly: “I always thought nukes were safe. TEPCO assured me they were. But they weren’t.”

“We are facing a terrible situation. Devastated coastline. 20,000 dead. Massive damage. Meltdown. I have felt a fearful shiver down my spine,” the prime minister said. Once the Japanese government received word of what was happening at Fukushima, the film shows a shot of the Diet building in Tokyo with members of the Japanese government scrambling, picture of people running wildly about like ants in an anthill. Nothing could be more graphic, a government out of control.

A segment shows the painful human cost to one man who is determined to take and keep control, to find all his family members and keep them safe. And he can’t. Norio Kimura has lost his whole family, his father, wife, and daughter, with the exception of his youngest daughter. He wanders through the rubbish and devastation of Fukushima looking for bodies. He can’t accept that they might all be dead, he keeps searching. There was a call for evacuation but Norio wouldn’t evacuate, he kept searching. Eventually he realizes that all he can do is take care of his youngest daughter and keep her safe. Kimura had to abandon the dangerous search through radioactive rubble, wanting to keep his youngest daughter alive. The motto was “save the living.”

But back to our story. The engineers had to go down to a flooded basement to gain access to the instruments by which they could measure the nuclear disaster. An explosion was imminent. TEPCO didn’t know how to deal with it. They had never modeled a situation in which there was no electricity. The radiation level was rising—there were very high readings even in the offices, not just in the areas below. At one point during the unfolding disaster, Prime Minister Kan decided to go to Fukushima by helicopter to find out what was going on with TEPCO.

Kan and TEPCO made a joint decision, which was pretty chilling. They decided to send in a voluntary suicide squad, “the Fukushima Fifty,” consisting of men over 60 who were not likely to have any more children and were willing to die to keep the disaster from cascading. The issue now was getting water into the reactor cores. But the ground was shaking and another explosion was expected. Panic. Radiation levels climbing. No escape. It was at this point that Americans in the nuclear power business came into play, flying planes over the reactors and dropping water from high altitude into the cores, with some hits, but also some misses.

Back in Tokyo they were now aware the situation was out of control. A plume of radiation drifted across the Japan. The key controversy, TEPCO wanted to pull all of its people out of Fukushima entirely, but Kan said no, “Abandoning the plants completely would be worse than what happened at Chernobyl.” The TEPCO plant manager decided to ignore this directive. He told his staff of 250 that they were at risk. He told them to go home. Kan said, “Lets stop this. We can’t abandon the plant. Men over 60, be prepared to go into the power plants and take control of the situation.” TEPCO agreed. To the “Fukushima 50” they said, “Stay in the central control room.” The Telegraph has noted, “That focus on self-sacrifice by older men was one of the most revealing details of the film, as was the plant manager’s attempt to save his staff. A skeleton crew, the so-called ‘Fukushima 50,’ remained in the plant.

The Fukushima 50 has been forbidden by TEPCO from telling their stories – but one has said, “Yoshida was resigned to his fate. I’m sure he was prepared to die himself, but he couldn’t kill 250 people. So he said, ‘Just go home.’” Further, it has been said that Prime Minister Kan, had simply misunderstood TEPCO, which wanted to withdraw only a portion of its staff. In fact, Kan was correct, the company wanted a total pullout.

Yoichi Funabashi, a former editor in chief of the Asahi Shimbun, says that he believes Mr. Kan made the right decision in forcing TEPCO not to abandon the plant. “Prime Minister Kan had his minuses and he had his lapses,” Mr. Funabashi said, “but his decision to storm into TEPCO and demand that it not give up saved Japan.”