Interview: Witness at Fukushima Daiichi

Members of the media wearing protective suits and masks report as they are escorted by TEPCO employees at Tokyo Electric Power Company's tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

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When the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan and the Daiichi nuclear plant last March, an American technical crew with 40 workers was on site.

Among the crew was Carl Pillitteri, a maintenance supervisor who was on the floor of one of the four turbine buildings -- enormous structures that house the gigantic turbines that produce energy. Carl was in charge of a detail that was packing away the specialized tools and equipment the technicians use to service the plant.  Over the next half-hour, he and they endured a terrifying ordeal -- sometimes in total darkness when the lighting failed.

The full force of the quake lasted several minutes. Several aftershocks followed, but the lights returned, and Carl was able to get everyone out, after first rescuing a crane operator who was stranded 30 feet overhead. Separated from the others, Carl retreated to a nearby hillside within the Daiichi plant complex, where he watched the tsunami approach to within a hundred feet or so from where he stood.

In an exclusive interview for "Burn: An Energy Journal," Carl said he remains traumatized by the events to this day and has spent the last year trying to move past it. Watch a video clip above from the interview and tune in to Marketplace on Wednesday, March 7 for the complete story. Read the transcript of the interview by clicking on the transcript tab near the top of this page.

Kai Ryssdal: There will be business news today, and economics, and politics too, after Super Tuesday yesterday. But we're gonna start on the other side of the planet -- March 11th, 2011, and the Japanese earthquake and the tsunami. And one of the worst nuclear disasters ever. At the time, in the days right afterward, information coming out of the Fukushima Daiichi plant was spotty at best, hard to come by. Which is part of what made the whole thing so scary. For the rest of the week leading up to the anniversary Sunday, we'll be airing a series of stories looking back at what happened and trying to figure out what, if anything, has been learned since then.

Those stories are being collected in a new public radio series called "Burn: An Energy Journal." The first episode airs this weekend about nuclear power after Fukushima. There were Americans inside the plant the day of the tsunami. Alex Chadwick talked to one of them.

Alex Chadwick: Tomioka, Japan, a beach town of about 16,000 people and one nearby nuclear power plant, Fukushima Daiichi, with a half-dozen reactors. For 40 American nuclear technicians, March 11th, one year ago, is supposed to be their last day on a two-month project. It's a good day to finish -- a Friday, clear, afternoon temperature in the 40s. Almost everyone is up at the office, 15 minutes to the end of the shift. But Carl Pillitteri is still working. He's scheduled to stay on for a while.

Carl Pillitteri: I remember everyone else leaving. I remember thinking, "How fortunate for me. I'm allowed to stay another three to four weeks and put this stuff away, put it away right."

Carl Pillitteri is 53, a native of New Jersey, where he wasn't thinking of high-tech. He barely graduated high school. But he is good with his hands and he is very careful. He travels most of the year now -- tending to nuclear reactors, inspection and maintenance. On this project, he is to oversee the complicated ritual of stowing away all their special tools. That's why he's staying on.

Pillitteri: Another chance for me to shine, another chance for them to come back and take it out of storage, everything is working great and oiled up nice.

He has two American and three Japanese techs with him. They call themselves Team Pillitteri. The equipment is laid out on the vast floor space of the Reactor No. 1 turbine building. I'm no good at estimating size, Carl told us, but he guesses it's bigger than two football fields laid end to end. Everything is normal. Then, in the moment of 2:46 p.m., in Alaska's Aleutian Islands, an American geoscience underwater microphone hears something originating 900 miles away off the coast of Japan. It is the beginning of the fourth largest earthquake in recorded history.

Pillitteri: Yeah, sure, of course. The very first shock of it. It was just one big hammer. And I turned to my two friends, saying "earthquake." But they didn't feel it. They looked at me, kind of cocked their heads a little bit. And then she hit.

Reactor Unit No. 1 is online and fully operational. The turbine, the largest moving part, is a series of enormous steel blades on a very long a horizontal axis. Imagine something like the mass of a small apartment building -- but this is prone on its side. It spins in rotation at 25 times a second, which it's doing now. In the entire nuclear plant complex, the turbine building is probably the worst place to be. Running at full speed, the turbine blades begin to shriek and moan.

Pillitteri: They were almost demonic in the way they sounded. I don't know what was generating these sounds. If it was the earth itself or the building being flexed or moved or the upheaval of the building.

Parts of the building structure not hard-bolted in place are crashing to the floor.

Pillitteri: And there was one young Japanese boy in front of me. This light came down like a guillotine right next to him.

Most of the fixtures are down; it's getting harder to see. Carl thinks he should help Team Pillitteri get out, but the quake is still rolling; it's too dangerous to try to escape.

Pillitteri: I had Danny over to the left screaming, "It's gonna blow, it's gonna blow, it's gonna blow."

He counts five men on the floor. The sixth is separated from the others in a crane above them. It hangs from double railings on the ceiling that run the length of the turbine.

Pillitteri: This crane was just crabbing and jumping. He kept getting off chair, and I'm thinking please, please don't even attempt to get out of there. Oh, he had to be a good 30-40 feet up in that cab.

In a big earthquake, every second is frightening, and then every next second more so, like a Richter scale of terror.

Pillitteri: In one nanosecond, just the entire floor went black; every light went out. You would expect that some emergency lighting would come on, but there wasn't a one. I looked in the direction of where we normally come in and there was this most welcome beam of white light coming out from the gap underneath the door. And I made my way over to the door and I opened it up. But at the same time I opened that door, the one and only light that was in that room was swinging violently, busted free and shattered on the floor. And it was pitch black again. I remember feeling -- you and none of you are getting out of here. That's the message I got from it.

The enormous space is completely without light, filled instead by the wailing of the turbine, and by silent prayers.

The earthquake lasts for six minutes. The epicenter is about 100 miles away, in the sea, but the effects on land are stunning.

Carl does get everyone on Team Pillitteri out of the turbine building. The ground still trembles and shakes from big aftershocks, and they know they should get to higher ground. This earthquake is sure to generate a large tsunami. About an hour later, separated from the others, Carl is on a small hillside still within the grounds of the Fukushima power plant. And he sees it, he sees it coming.

Pillitteri: It resembled this huge swell of the ocean. It was as if someone had lifted everything and rolled it your way -- kind of like if you were to put water in a large cookie sheet or pan or something like that, filled with water and just pick it up on one end and watch all that water slide to the other end. Billions of gallons were coming at us and I wondered if I wasn't high enough.

It gets much closer than you would want -- maybe a hundred feet or so. It floods the power system to keep the reactors cool in an emergency. Within a day, the Fukushima reactor cores will be in meltdown.

Pillitteri: I was wondering just how global is this thing. I remember thinking -- good god, if there's an end to the world, is this it?

At last, the tsunami begins to recede. As it does, it pulls the away the atmosphere with it. Dark clouds rush in from the western highlands; the air turns much colder. Carl Pillitteri is alone on his hillside, a landscape of ruin before him. It begins to snow.

By evening, Carl's work group retreats to the lobby of a nearby hotel. They stay the night there. The next day, they join a general evacuation to Tokyo, a little more than 100 miles south. It takes 14 hours, but they are all going home safely.

Carl Pillitteri continues as a nuclear technician today. He doesn't feel differently about nuclear power, he says. But he is haunted by Fukushima, by what happened, and by what he saw.

For Marketplace, this is Alex Chadwick.

Ryssdal: Alex Chadwick is host of the new public radio series, "Burn: An Energy Journal" -- premiering this weekend with a special on nuclear power after Fukushima. "Burn" is produced by SoundVision and funded by the National Science Foundation.

About the author

Alex Chadwick is an independent journalist, renowned public radio correspondent and contributor to Marketplace. He is host of BURN: An Energy Journal.

Explore a timeline of the history of nuclear energy. Click here to view full size.


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