Masao Yoshida, 58, who directed Fukushima atomic plant disaster operations, dies of cancer

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TOKYO — Masao Yoshida, the plant manager who led the fight to bring Japan’s Fukushima atomic station under control during the 2011 nuclear disaster, has died. He was 58.

He died Tuesday at a hospital in Tokyo, according to a statement from Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant. The cause was esophageal cancer, the statement said. The illness was unrelated to the radiation exposure after the nuclear accident, according to Tepco, as Tokyo Electric is known.

Yoshida, an engineer by training, directed workers to stop the reactors from overheating after Japan’s strongest earthquake on record and an ensuing tsunami hit the plant on March 11, 2011, causing the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. He stayed at the plant, helming the disaster response for almost nine months.

“I can not imagine how hard it was for him,” Tatsujiro Suzuki, vice-chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, said in an interview Tuesday. “He had to make a decision that most of the on-site workers should leave because the situation was getting worse and he also had to have some of his staff remain to work with him. That was probably the hardest decision he ever had to make.”

Yoshida stepped down Dec. 1, 2011, after having been hospitalized a few days earlier for an unspecified illness. Officials from Tepco disclosed Yoshida’s cancer eight days later.

“We deeply appreciate his contribution and the way he handled the accident,” Tepco President Naomi Hirose said in Tuesday’s statement. “It is very sad that we cannot work together with him to rebuild the company.”

After studying nuclear engineering at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, Yoshida joined Tepco in 1979, according to the utility. He was appointed head of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant in June 2010.

As radiation levels spiked in the early days of the crisis, workers were pulled out of the plant, leaving behind what became known as the Fukushima Fifty who risked their lives to bring the reactors under control.

On March 12, a day after the tsunami, Yoshida ignored an order from Tepco headquarters to stop pumping seawater into a reactor to try and cool it because of concerns that ocean water would corrode the equipment.

Tepco initially said it would penalize Yoshida even though Sakae Muto, then a vice president at the utility, said it was a technically appropriate decision. Yoshida received no more than a verbal reprimand after then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan defended the plant chief, the Yomiuri newspaper reported.

“I bow in respect for his leadership and decision- making,” Kan said Tuesday in a message posted on his Twitter account. “I wish I had the chance to talk to him at length about the nuclear disaster once again.”

Yoshida thought several times that workers at the plant were going to perish, he told reporters who visited the Fukushima station on Nov. 12, 2011, the Mainichi newspaper reported. Yoshida had thought plant operators might completely lose control as the meltdowns accelerated, he told reporters.

“If Yoshida wasn’t there, the disaster could have been much worse,” said Reiko Hachisuka, the head of a business group in Okuma town, home to the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant, and one of the Diet panel members that investigated the accident. His charisma made “workers at the Fukushima plant believe they could die for Yoshida,” she said.

The 2011 earthquake and tsunami left more than 18,000 people dead or missing and forced the evacuation of 160,000, eventually prompting the idling of all but two of Japan’s 50 functioning reactors for safety checks.

In September 2011, Spain gave the Fukushima Fifty the Prince of Asturias Award for Concord, calling them the “heroes of Fukushima.”

“He was such a born leader that his subordinates were ready to die alongside him,” said Ryusho Kadota, who interviewed Yoshida and other members of the Fifty for his book “The Man Who Stared Down Death.” “If Yoshida hadn’t been plant manager, Tokyo would be a no man’s land right now.”

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