VOA’s White House bureau chief, Steve Herman, a decade ago this week, quickly made his way from Seoul to catch the last commercial flight into Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, to cover a catastrophe that was becoming more serious by the hour. A magnitude-9.0 earthquake triggered a tsunami that destroyed a nuclear power plant, unleashing a radioactive crisis.
The scope of one half of the disaster was apparent and appalling: Entire communities washed out to sea in a tsunami triggered by a huge earthquake.
The other half of the tragedy was invisible and potentially more calamitous: Nuclear radiation escaping from reactors of a crippled power plant swamped by a pair of towering waves.
Reporting the first part of the story was relatively easy. Thousands certainly dead and a half-million survivors on the move.
Accurately reporting the atomic angle was the bigger challenge. Journalists and their news outlets, Japanese and international, had an obligation to get the facts straight. Underplaying the radioactive threat could imperil lives in Japan and possibly abroad. Sensationalism, based on unconfirmed information, could trigger panic, something that would not only be irresponsible but undermine trust in the media.
Trying to achieve that balance meant I did not report what would have been the biggest “scoop” of my career — that one or more reactors of the Fukushima-1 Nuclear Power Plant had melted down.
I got the tip in a phone call, shortly after arriving in Fukushima, from the retired executive of a Japanese utility in another part of the country that also operated nuclear plants.
“The core of at least one of the reactors at Fukushima is melting down,” he bluntly said without my prodding for an assessment. There was concern in his voice and hints of a coverup.
At that point, Japanese media relying on the Tokyo Electric Power Company, which operated the two Fukushima nuclear plants, and the Japanese government, were not reporting such a dire scenario.
I rang a Japanese politician plugged in to the top echelon of the governing party. Certainly he would have been informed if there were indications of a meltdown. He had not, however, been told such details and seemed skeptical there was a core reactor meltdown. I had long known this lawmaker, who later was to hold cabinet positions, and trusted he was not trying to steer me in the wrong direction.
Without a second source to confirm the sensational information, I did not report it. A day later, it would be evident that my primary source was probably correct when the chief cabinet secretary, Yukio Edano, admitted that a partial meltdown in Unit 3 was "highly possible." The actual situation, as we would later realize, was worse.
During the initial days of the disaster, details of what had really happened to the nuclear plant were sparse. The readings from local radiation monitoring stations were worrying. These were not generally being reported by the national media and correspondents stationed in Tokyo were not able to see them.
However, the information was being scrolled across the screens of the Fukushima-area TV channels. My Japanese fluency was good enough that I could read the names of the towns, allowing me to instantly and accurately tweet to the world the radiation footprint.
While the readings were not of a level to spark immediate, serious health concerns, they did show radiation was drifting from the plant in measurable quantities to the northwest.
A week after the tsunami hit the power plant, milk and water from the Fukushima area were found to have excessively high levels of radioactive iodine. Tap water in Tokyo, 225 kilometers from Fukushima, also carried elevated levels of radiation.
Colleagues and family members expressed concern and even alarm that I decided to remain in what they regarded as an unsafe perimeter amid the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. I replied I was being prudent, but not reckless.
My experience with nuclear-related issues went back to the late 1970s when as a local radio news reporter in Las Vegas, I regularly covered activities at the Nevada Test Site, where underground nuclear bombs were set off by the government. I had also been in the courtroom for a highly technical federal trial stemming from the accidental release of radiation into the atmosphere from the U.S. government's 1970 Baneberry nuclear test.
This background gave me a basic education in nuclear physics and radiation. All radioactive isotopes are not alike, I knew. Plutonium, even in the most minute quantity, if inhaled, is deadly. However, it is very heavy and once it falls to the ground is likely to stay in that spot.
The noble gases, by contrast, take flight and can be detected far away. Of particular health concern was Iodine-131. I almost certainly had some exposure and consulted a physician friend in California.
“Don’t worry. You’ll be dead of something else in old age before you’ll get thyroid cancer from this,” he said, trying to be reassuring.
This all played into my calculations for deciding whether to enter the 20-kilometer radiation exclusion zone a month after the March 11 tsunami.
On the ground
John Glionna of the Los Angeles Times and I teamed up to become the first American reporters to reach the grounds of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plants.
Police, who were at that time legally powerless to bar us entry to the exclusion zone, instructed us not to open our vehicle windows and to report to a radiation screening center in the town of Tamura afterwards, where we should wash our vehicle.
As we moved toward "ground zero," we passed kilometers of fields from which farmers had fled. For most of the 20-kilometer journey, we spotted only police, military and other official vehicles. Even those we could count on one hand.
Not a single person was seen outside in the villages of Futaba and Okuma, which until a month prior had a combined population of about 18,500. The doors of some businesses remained open through which people hastily fled when the ground shook with unprecedented fury.
Some roads could not be traversed by car — pavement in places split by the quake. A railroad overpass lay crumpled next to one road. Power poles leaned at sharp angles.
After a drive up the slope to the main gate of Fukushima Daiichi, we were warily greeted by two guards outfitted in hazmat suits, helmets and dual-intake respirator masks.
Our attempts to ask questions were rebuffed. The only return communication was the hand signal to make a U-turn. The license plate of our vehicle was noted. It was manifestly clear we could not proceed farther and were not encouraged to loiter.
In the parking lot, I spotted a panel with one of those messages typically seen at industrial or construction sites. It was a billboard erected by the "TEPCO Fukushima 1 Nuclear Power Plant Safety Committee."
The message, obviously unchanged since the catastrophe, made what could only be read in retrospect as an extremely ironic proclamation: "This month's safety slogan: Be sure to check everything and do a risk assessment. Zero disasters for this year."