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.



The Elephant’s Foot

The content below is from Episode 105 of the Who’d a Thunk It? Podcast


  • This week I strongly suggest you watch HBO’s mini-series Chernobyl. It is one of the greatest non-fiction miniseries I’ve ever seen.
    • I think I have recommended it before. But it directly ties in with this week’s episode. As I was looking in to this week’s episode I found myself picturing scenes from that show.
    • Aria Bendix from Business Insider wrote in regards to the show’s level of accuracy to the real-life events:
      • “For the most part, it’s hauntingly accurate — with the exception of a few artistic liberties.”
    • If you watcht he series I think it will give you a very good base of knowledge to go by whenever the topic of Chernobyl is brought up in your life…. like when you listen to a small podcast episode!


  • And this week’s is about the Elaphant’s Foot
    • The Elephant’s Foot is the most dangerous radioactive waste in the world. It is a solid flow of corium that came from the nuclear meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on April 26, 1986.
    • Now let me briefly summarize some topics surrounding the giant deadly blob of radioactive ooze before I explain further:
  • Nuclear Power
    • Nuclear Power Plants heat water to produce steam. The steam is used to spin large turbines that generate electricity. Nuclear power plants use the heat produced during nuclear fission to heat water.
    • In nuclear fission, atoms are split apart to form smaller atoms, releasing energy. Fission takes place inside the reactor of a nuclear power plant. At the center of the reactor is the core, which contains uranium fuel.
    • The uranium fuel is formed into ceramic pellets. Each ceramic pellet produces about the same amount of energy as 150 gallons of oil. These energy-rich pellets are stacked end-to-end in 12-foot metal fuel rods. A bundle of fuel rods, some with hundreds of rods, is called a fuel assembly. A reactor core contains many fuel assemblies.
    • The heat produced during nuclear fission in the reactor core is used to boil water into steam, which turns the blades of a steam turbine. As the turbine blades turn, they drive generators that make electricity. Nuclear plants cool the steam back into the water in a separate structure at the power plant called a cooling tower, or they use water from ponds, rivers, or the ocean. The cooled water is then reused to produce steam.
      • It is a pretty nifty power source for us humans, although the risks CAN BE pretty high… Those risks are the major topic of today’s episode.
  • Chernobyl
    • Chernobyl was the site of a nuclear power plant in Soviet Union Ukraine, but then there was an accident.
      • A tiny little whoopsy moment that had the potential to turn a huge part of the globe in to an uninhabitable waste land for thousands of years.
    • Early in the morning of April 26th of 1986 a reactor in unit 4 of the Chernobyl exploded during a routine test of the plant’s turbine generator system. This sent clouds of radioactive smoke in to the air above the Chernobyl plant.
    • Winds that day carried the toxic cloud for hundreds of miles.
      • Some 150,000 square kilometres in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine are contaminated and stretch northward of the plant site as far as 500 kilometres. An area spanning 30 kilometres around the plant is considered the “exclusion zone” and is essentially uninhabited.
    • This was a major public health catastrophe like the world had never seen before. Entire communities were being exposed to varying degrees of radiation.
    • The Chernobyl accident in 1986 happened because of a flawed reactor design and because the operators employed to run things were undertrained.
    • The resulting steam explosion and fires released at least 5% of the radioactive reactor core into the environment, with the deposition of radioactive materials in many parts of Europe.
    • Two Chernobyl plant workers died due to the explosion on the night of the accident, and a further 28 people died within a few weeks as a result of acute radiation syndrome.
    • The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation has concluded that, apart from some 5000 thyroid cancers (resulting in 15 fatalities), “there is no evidence of a major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure 20 years after the accident.”
    • Some 350,000 people were evacuated as a result of the accident, but resettlement of areas from which people were relocated is ongoing.
      • Things were pretty bad at Chernobyl, but it could have been WAY worse.
  • The Elephant’s Foot, like I mentioned earlier, is a byproduct of the Chernobyl accident of 1986.
    • While the radioactive cloud was spreading to the surrounding areas, the fuel rods within the reactor had melted through their protective container.
      • This was bad. Very bad. It was basically lava, but SUPER radioactive.
    • The fuel rods melted at 4,091 degrees Fahrenheit (2,255 degrees Celsius) and remained above 3,022 degrees Fahrenheit (1,660 degrees Celsius) for over 4 days.
      • It was basically super hot lava. Most super-heated red and yellow lava that we see on the surface of the planet like in Hawaii is around 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,093 degrees Celsius).
    • The melted fuel rods melted at such a high tempurature that they became a material known as corium.
  • Corium
    • Corium, also called fuel-containing material (FCM) or lava-like fuel-containing material (LFCM), is a material that is created in the core of a nuclear reactor during a meltdown accident. It resembles natural lava in its consistency.
    • It consists of a mixture of nuclear fuelfission productscontrol rods, structural materials from the affected parts of the reactor, products of their chemical reaction with air, water, and steam, and, in the event that the reactor vessel is breached, molten concrete from the floor of the reactor room.
    • Corium has been created outside of a lab (or unintentionally) 5 times. Once at 3-mile-island in 1979, once at Chernobyl, and 3 times in the Fukishima Diiashi meltdown of 2011. The reason why the Elephant’s Foot is so special is because it is so large, and because it is the only instance where the corium ate through the reactor core and “escaped” to the environment.
  • So by this point in the Chernobyl accidentthere was the largest deposit of corium known to man oozing across the concrete floor of the reactor. It was eating everything in its path, including the concrete floor itself.
    • During the Chernobyl disaster rescue and containment crews were busy with trying to clean up the mess above ground to worry about any corium deposits so the Elephant’s foot was free to grow and spread for months before nuclear reactor inspectors.
    • By the time it was discovered the Elephant’s Foot had grown so large in unit 4 that it had eaten through the concrete floor and fallen to a lower level. When the inspectors first laid eyes on the blob it had grown to a staggering 11 tons of deadly mass. It was nearly 10 feet (3 meters) in width.
      • Wikipedia says: It is one small part of a much larger mass that lies beneath Reactor No. 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. The Elephant’s Foot is located in Room 217/2, several dozen feet to the southeast of the ruined reactor and six meters above ground level. The material making up the Elephant’s Foot had burned through at least 2 m (6.6 ft) of reinforced concrete, then flowed through pipes and fissures and down a hallway to reach its current location.
      • The mass was quite dense and unyielding to a drill mounted on a remote-controlled trolley, but able to be damaged by a Kalashnikov rifle (AK-47) using armor piercing rounds. By June 1998, the outer layers had started turning to dust and the mass had started to crack. As of 2021, the mass has been described as having a consistency similar to sand
      • LOL I love how Russian that is… they couldn’t peirce it with a drill so they shot armor peircing rounds out of an AK47!
  • They named it the Elephant’s Foot because of the size and its outward appearance was gray and like tree bark, much like the skin of an elephant.
    • At the time of its discovery, about eight months after formation, radioactivity near the Elephant’s Foot was approximately 8,000 roentgens, or 80 grays per hour, delivering a 50/50 lethal dose of radiation (4.5 grays) within five minutes. Since that time the radiation intensity has declined enough that, in 1996, the Elephant’s Foot was visited by the Deputy Director of the New Confinement Project, Artur Korneyev, who took photographs using an automatic camera and a flashlight to illuminate the otherwise dark room.
    • Regardless of how much Wikipedia says the radiation has disipated since 1986, there is still a big Mr. Yuck sticker stapped on the side. That’s because the Elephant’s Foot is still very deadly.
  • Now this massive 11 ton blob of extra deadly lava is already mysterious because it is inherently off limits.
    • We want what we can’t have and this thing is so much in the “can’t have” category that people crave more information about it, even though it is just a big blob of rock in a basement.
    • If someone aske me if I wanted to go see a big blob rock in a basement I would probably say no. Exception being if I was a teenager because back then I didn’t care what I was doing as long as I was doing it with some friends.
      • But if you told me the blob was deadly I would become more interested.
    • But its connection to one of the biggest events of the 20th century and deadliness aren’t the only things contributing to the Elephant’s Foot popularity.
  • Back in 2013 a journalist was working on a piece about the Elephant’s Foot for a magazine. In an old archive of photographs from the Chernobyl accident he found the image that I used for this episode’s cover. It is very creepy.
    • The photo shows a man in a full-body cleaning suit and hard hat hunching over the Elephant’s Foot. But the man in the photo doesn’t look normal. His body is translucent like some sort of ghost and there seems to be a copy of himself standing directly behind him. There are also bright orange streaks of what appears to be lightning in the photo. It isn’t just creepy, it is haunting. Especially when you realize how deadly it is to be in this room.
    • It is peculiar that this photo emerged in 2013, so long after the Chernobyl accident. It is particularly mysterious when you consider the layers of secrecy that Russian and its allies placed upon the Chernobyl accident.
    • At first people thought the photo was taken soon after the Chernobyl accident and that surely the man in the photo and the photographer had died of radiation poisoning.
    • But then it was discovered by another journalist that the photo had a caption “Artur Korneev, Deputy Director of Shelter Object, viewing the ‘elephants foot’ lava flow, Chornobyl NPP. Photographer: Unknown. Fall 1996.”
    • Who is Artur Korneyev?
An article in the New York Times covered Artur’s story
Chernobyl: Capping a Catastrophe
  • An article in the New York Times covered Artur’s story
    • The title: Chernobyl: Capping a Catastrophe
    • Artur was about 40 years old in the photograph. He was a radiation specialist from Kazakhstan. He is an expert on the Chernobyl accident, especially the waste that was left like the Elephant’s Foot.
    • A lot of people were tasked with cleaning up the Chernobyl accident. It was Artur’s job to go in first, find the fuel that was left over, and document the level of radiation it was still giving off.
      • His safety was NOT garaunteed, so that those who followed after him might have a more safe working environment.
    • Artur went where the corium went. Through air ducts, drainage pipes, melted concrete floors, and so on. He said the corium looked as if it was water gushing from a flood, but stopped in time. Whenever he and his team encountered the much more radioactive solid fuel, it was there job to move it away, either with shovels or by kicking it with their boots.
      • Artur visited the Elephant’s foot many times. He is most likely the person to have seen the most in person.
      • It is believed that the famous photo that shows Artur Korneyev standing with the Elephant’s Foot was taken by a drone of some sort, and not a human photographer.
    • In 1995, Artur was one of the people to tell other countries in the west that the underground area under Unit 4 (or the sarcophagus as they called it) was not in safe. Because of his reports a group of 7 countries agreed to pay to have Unit 4 made as safe as possible. By 1995, Ukraine was an independent country and had decided to close the remaining reactors that were still operating. The last reactor was shut down in the year 2000.
    • The New York Times took a picture of Artur in his home back in 2014 at the age of 65. He has cataracts and other health issues that some beleive were brought on, not just by age, but his career of engaging with high levels of radiation.
      • I tried to see if he was still alive, but the best I found was an article from 2016 that wrote “he is probably still alive.” Just goes to show how little us westerners get to hear about Russia and the Eastern Block area lol.
    • Although Artur lived (or is still living) to an old age, experts say that being near the Elephant’s Foot for mere minutes could give someone radiation sickness, an hour would most likely be lethal.
    • While there have been many successful efforts above ground to contain the radiation at Chernobyl such as creating the sarcophagus and the giant concrete dome that was created just as recently as 2015, the Elephant’s Foot poses a threat in the opposite direction.
    • The fear is that the Elephant’s Foot could continue to eat through the concrete and sand beneath it and contaminate drinking water. This would be bad news for the population surrounding Chernobyl and all those within the same watershed.
    • However, this is an 11 ton blob of cooled radiation lava. It is sealed by the concrete sarcophagus and nestled within the labrynth of Unit 4’s concrete basement, each room, vent, and pipe also containing dangerous corium material. It ain’t going nowhere.
    • It will just sit there, potentially forever.


Tune in next week.