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Asahi - Shadow Units (4)

March 11, 2013

PROMETHEUS TRAP/ 'Shadow units' (4): Selection of personnel for Fukushima mission limited by unit makeup




March 11, 2013


Editor's note: This is the fourth part of a new series that has run in the past under the title of The Prometheus Trap. This series deals with the secret missions assigned to the “shadow units” of the Ground Self-Defense Force when the Fukushima nuclear disaster was unfolding following the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. The series will appear on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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On March 27, 2011, one week after the Ground Self-Defense Force's Central Readiness Regiment received the order to rescue employees at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, the 50 personnel involved in the mission went to Camp Koriyama for a briefing.

The talk was given by Lt. Col. Katsumi Nakamura, 53, who heads the chemicals section at the Kanto Logistics Depot.

The service members were all novices when it came to radiation. That was evident when one asked, "What is a meltdown?"

All the participants were seriously taking notes because they were well aware that not understanding any bit of information could mean the difference between life and death.

The question was raised to what extent protective sheets applied to the armored vehicles would protect personnel from radiation.

When Nakamura said, "about 20 to 30 percent," a gloomy silence prevailed in the room because of the seriousness of the situation.

Although the briefing was originally scheduled to last one hour, it was extended for about 30 minutes because of the many questions the participants had.

Selection of the commander and driver for the armored vehicles that would enter the site of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant to rescue the employees of Tokyo Electric Power Co. was left up to those who would be involved in the mission. That was similar to what happened in selecting members of the 1st Helicopter Brigade, who were tasked with dumping water on the reactor buildings.

Sixteen personnel would be needed for the eight armored vehicles. That meant choosing 14 members in addition to the regiment and company commanders.

Atsushi Kikuchi, the 1st Company commander, isolated himself in the strategy room to look over a list of about 60 personnel. He wanted to exclude single members as well as those who were about to start families. However, because mainly young members were on the list, he designated 14 personnel without enlisting any opinions or giving a reason for his selections.

Those members who were not chosen for the mission assisted in training by helping the driver don his protective gear as well as inspecting the vehicles. Two to three personnel were assigned to each armored vehicle to provide backup support.

Driving using periscopes meant there would be many blind spots. The armored vehicles also would have to be navigated into the nuclear power plant, which was experiencing an emergency in which no one knew what was unfolding there. Such conditions naturally called for veteran personnel to serve as drivers.

One such individual was Sgt. 1st Class Yasufumi Suzuki, 30, who had about 7,000 kilometers of driving experience. On March 11, 2011, Suzuki was bench pressing 70-kilogram barbells at Camp Utsunomiya when the earthquake struck.

A standby order meant he could not go home, so he called his wife, Mineko, 30, that night.

"Cancel the wedding reception," Suzuki said.

While they had married the previous year, they had not yet held their reception. It had been scheduled for March 21, 2011.

Taken aback, Mineko asked, "What? Won't everything be all right in 10 days?"

Suzuki shot back, "Stop kidding around."

They had planned to hold the reception at a hotel in Yokohama and had already sent out invitations to 60 people, including relatives and senior officers. They had planned to have Suzuki carry a beer server on his shoulder while Mineko passed out snacks as they made their way around to guests sitting at the tables at the reception.

During training, Suzuki could not divulge to his wife what the mission would entail. After dinner, he would e-mail her with simple messages such as, "I just ate."


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