Unwillingly Kept Alive

The content below is from Episode 145 of the Who’d a Thunk It? Podcast



Tokaimura Nuclear Power Plant
  • For this true story, I’m going to ask you to flip your calendars back to 1961 Who’d a Thunkers, the year Japan’s built their first commercial nuclear power plant.
    • Japan (Nippon-koku) is a nation with few natural resources. Before nuclear power, they relied heavily on expensive imports for their energy. So when Japan created their first nuclear power plant in 1961, it was just the beginning.
    • Fast forward just 4 years later to 1965 and a one Hisashi Ouchi (this story’s main character) is born.
Hisashi Ouchi
  • Ouchi would grow up serving his country by working in the Tokaimura power plant.
    • From
      • The power plant location in Tokaimura was ideal due to the abundant land space, and it led to a whole campus of nuclear reactors, research institutes, fuel enrichment, and disposal facilities. Ultimately, one-third of the city’s entire population would rely on the nuclear industry rapidly growing in the Ibaraki Prefecture northeast of Tokyo.
      • The plant converted uranium hexafluoride into enriched uranium for nuclear energy purposes. This was typically done with a careful, multi-step process that involved mixing several elements in a carefully-timed sequence.
    • In March of 1997 the Tokaimura plant exploded. When the government stepped in they attempted a cover-up to hide the blatant negligence going on at the plant. It shocked the nearby residents irradiating some of them. But the horror of this explosion was nothing compared to what would happen just 2 year later.
    • It was in 1999 when plant officials thought they could speed up the process of their multi-step fuel mixture system to meet deadlines with ease… They thought they would experiment… with nuclear fission.
    • On September 28th, 1999 the Tokaimura plant had missed a deadline for creating fuel for the reactor.
  • On the morning of September 30th, 1999, at Japan’s Tokaimura nuclear power plant, a young Hisashi Ouchi was just beginning his day. Hisashi Ouchi, his 29-year-old peer Masato Shinohara, and their 54-year-old supervisor Yutaka Yokokawa tried a short cut.
    • The plant where he worked was under a lot of stress to meet deadline after deadline. Shortcuts were constantly being made to save money and the subsequent years that followed were rife with breaches in safety protocol. The plant was only inspected two times a year by the state regulator. It had never been inspected while the plant was in operation. In hindsight, the Tokaimura plant probably should have been shut down long before September 30th. But while hindsight is 20/20, that morning Ouchi’s bosses at the Japan Nuclear Fuel Conversion Co. (JCO) told him and two of his coworkers to mix another batch of fuel.
    • On top of the shortcuts and seeming indifference to safety, Ouchi and his coworkers were not properly trained to do the job they were asked to complete.
      • Ouchi and Shinohara were mixing a batch of fuel containing uranium in a stainless steel tank while Yokokawa (supervisor) was sitting at a desk 4 meters (just over 13 feet) away.
    • They mixed the nuclear fuel materials… by hand.
    • The amount of uranium used that day by the untrained men was 7 times more than the correct amount and it was poured into the wrong tank, not capable of containing the highly poisonous element.
    • Out of the three workers mixing one of the most dangerous concoctions of all time that morning, Ouchi was the one standing directly over the vessel used to contain the mixture. Though his body was taking on the most, the entire room was being flooded with Gamma rays… unbeknownst to the three men.
    • None of them had any idea what they were doing. Instead of using automatic pumps to mix 5.3 pounds of enriched uranium with nitric acid in a designated vessel, they used their hands to pour 35 pounds of it into steel buckets. They started this work at 10AM. By 10:35AM, that uranium reached critical mass.
      • The room exploded with a blue flash that confirmed that a nuclear chain reaction had occurred and was releasing lethal emissions of radiation.
  • Eventually, the local towns were evacuated to stay safe from the harmful Gamma rays, but Ouchi and his coworkers weren’t so lucky.
    • Ouichi was taken to the hospital where his condition shocked the doctors treating him. He had almost zero white blood cells. He had virtually no immune system so he was kept in a special radiation ward to protect him from pathogens from the outside world.
      • The first place Ouchi and his coworkers (Yutaka Yokokawa and Masato Shinohara) were taken to the National Institute of Radiological Sciences in Chiba. All three of the men were exposed to the radiation, but because of where they were positioned in the room in relation to the reactor fuel mix, they didn’t all get the same amount of radiation.
    • The sievert (Sv) is the International System of Units (SI) derived unit of dose equivalent radiation that takes into account the relative biological effectiveness of different forms of ionizing radiation.
      • It is intended to represent the stochastic health risk of ionizing radiation, which is defined as the probability of causing radiation-induced cancer and genetic damage. The sievert is important in dosimetry and radiation protection.
      • The rule of thumb is that seven sieverts (Sv) is enough to kill a person.
      • Nuclear Radiation 101: Nuclear radiation affects the atoms in our bodies by removing electrons. This breaks the bonds between atoms, including DNA and water in our bodies, damaging them. If your DNA gets damaged enough, cells can’t replicate and they die. Those that can still replicate, create more damaged cells. When damaged cells multiply, it creates cancer.
    • Yutaka Yokokawa, the supervisor that day, was exposed to 3 Sv. He would be the only man out of the 3 Tokaimura plant workers to survive.
  • Ouchi’s pain began immediately.
    • He could barely breathe and was vomiting violently in-between moments of unconsciousness on his way to the hospital.
    • He was crying blood and covered in red radiation burns almost immediately.
    • After just 3 days at the National Institute of Radiological Sciences in Chiba with doctors assessing each of the three men’s internal organs, they were transferred to the University of Tokyo Hospital. There they attempted revolutionary stem-cell treatments.
  • His first week at the University of Tokyo Hospital in the ICU was full of agonizing skin graft after skin graft and blood transfusion after blood transfusion. This was all they could do to keep him alive.
    • That’s when Hisamura Hirai, a cell transplant specialist, said they should try something risky. It was unheard of to treat radiation patients with stem-cell transplants, but then again, Ouchi had been exposed to an unheard-of amount of radiation.
      • The stem-cells worked. They gave Ouchi’s body a chance to create new blood. His sister donated her own stem-cells.
    • But then they started to take a closer look at Ouchi’s body and the scope of its condition became clear. The photos of his chromosomes were disturbingly informative.
      • His chromosomes were obliterated by radiation. They had “shattered like glass.” They could not be identified or arranged. Without chromosomes, his cells could not regenerate and his body could not heal. His white blood cell count was 0. All transplanted blood would quickly need to be transplanted again for more new blood because the radiation running through his body would destroy the introduced blood cells.
      • There are images of Ouchi’s body in the hospital that I have chosen NOT to show here (feel free to google image search is you’d like but be warned, they are gruesome). The photos of his body show that the uncountable skin grafts the hospital put on his body were doing very little. His DNA couldn’t rebuild itself. His skin was melting.
  • It wasn’t long before his skin started to melt off of him and he cried tears of blood begging to see his mother.
  • His body leaked as he endured a level of agony unseen on this Earth.
    • When he was first brought into the hospital, Ouchi did not seem to understand the severity of his radiation poisoning, often asking when he could go home, and asking if this could cause leukemia. But a few weeks later he began to bed for death.
      • He reportedly said things like “I can’t take it anymore,” and “I’m not a guinea pig!”
      • His family, the ones not experiencing his intense pain, insisted he be kept alive.
    • On day 27, Ouchi’s intestines started “to melt.” Three weeks later, he started hemorrhaging. He began receiving blood transfusions, sometimes as many as 10 in 12 hours. He began losing a significant amount of fluids (10 liters, or over 2 1/2 gallons, a day) through his skin so they wrapped him completely in gauze. He was bleeding from his eyes. His wife said that it looked like he was crying blood. Ouchi started receiving daily skin transplants using artificial skin, but they wouldn’t stick. His muscles began falling off the bone.
    • On the 59th day after the accident at Tokaimura power plant, Ouchi, or what was left of him, suffered from numerous heart attacks, but the hospital staff would revive him over and over again.
      • Because of the way end-of-life laws are set up in Japan, if his family wished it, he had to be revived at all costs. His family insisted he be kept alive for as long as physically possible. They wanted him to be resuscitated everytime he died.
      • On that 59th day, Ouchi had 3 heart attacks in just 1 hour.
      •  This severely damaged his brain and kidneys. At this point, Ouchi was on life support.
  • The melting mass that was once Hisashi Ouchi suffered before his final escape in the form of a final cardiac arrest… 83 days after being admitted to the hospital.
    • With his DNA obliterated and brain damage increasing every time he died, Ouchi’s fate had long been sealed. It was only a merciful final cardiac arrest due to multi-organ failure on Dec. 21, 1999, that released him from the pain.

Hisashi Ouchi Photos

Japan TimesA picture of Hisashi Ouchi from his identification badge at the nuclear power plant.

The following paragraphs were taken from and

The immediate aftermath of the Tokaimura nuclear accident saw 310,000 of villagers within six miles of the Tokai facility ordered to stay indoors for 24 hours. Over the next 10 days, 10,000 people were checked for radiation, with more than 600 people suffering low levels.

There was no critical accident alarm at the facility. When the accident first occurred, other workers were unaware of the emergency. After they were made aware, there was confusion as to whether or not the danger had passed. This led to three members of emergency personnel being unexpectedly exposed while trying to rescue the workers inside.

Because the plant was not included in the National Plan for the Prevention of Nuclear Disasters, immediate protocols for the protection of individuals outside of the plant were not in place. Workers at a lumber yard very near the plant were not evacuated until 3pm, 4 1/2 hours after the reaction.

Tokaimura Nuclear Accident Victims

Kaku Kurita/Gamma-Rapho/Getty ImagesResidents in Tokaimura, Japan, being checked for radiation on Oct. 2, 1999.

But none suffered as much as Hisashi Ouchi and his colleague, Masato Shinohara.

Shinohara spent seven months fighting for his life. He, too, had received blood stem cell transfusions. In his case, doctors took them from the umbilical cord of a newborn.

Shinohara seemed to be getting better. On New Year’s Day 2000, he was taken in his wheelchair to visit the hospital gardens.

However, in late February 2000, Shinohara contracted pneumonia and the damage to his lungs from the radiation meant that he needed to be put on a ventilator. This prevented him from speaking, so he had to write messages to nurses and family. Some of the last words written by Shinohara were “Mommy, please.”

Tragically, neither the stem-cell transfusions approach nor skin grafts, blood transfusions, or cancer treatments had worked. He died of lung and liver failure on April 27, 2000.

As for the supervisor of the two deceased workers, Yokokawa was released after three months of treatment. He had suffered minor radiation sickness and survived. But he faced criminal charges of negligence in October 2000. JCO, meanwhile, would pay $121 million to settle 6,875 compensation claims from affected locals.

In reaction to the accident, which was found to be completely the result of human error, the Tōkai-Mura power plant was fully automated and fitted with neutron monitoring equipment. Tōkai-Mura had a history of taking shortcuts and putting their employees at risk to speed up production. The deaths of Ouchi and Shinohara were the ultimate penalty for their carelessness.

One year after the devastating accident, 6 employees were arrested and charged with negligence. One of the 6 was Yokokawa who claimed he “forgot” or was not aware of the dangers in the plant. He pled guilty.

At the time, Japan generated approximately 1/3 of its electricity from nuclear power.

The nuclear power plant in Tokai continued to operate under a different company for more than a decade until it shut down automatically during the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. It has not operated since.