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Inside Japan's Failing Nuclear Reactors

Martinez man once repaired the mighty Fukushima power station; now he is observing its destruction

MARTINEZ — For five days, the world has watched as engineers struggle to contain a catastrophe building inside four Japanese nuclear reactors. 

Martinez resident Kei Sugaoka knows those reactors well.

Sugaoka was a senior field engineer for General Electric Co., which designed and helped maintain the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in northeastern Japan. Over a 21-year period, he descended "countless" times into the plant's now-failing reactors, giving him a unique perspective on the unfolding drama.

After he was laid off from GE in 1998, Sugaoka gained notoriety as a whistleblower who reported significant safety violations at Fukushima, leading to sweeping reforms in Japan's nuclear industry in the early 2000s. 

However, as he watches the disaster from his two-story home in suburban Martinez, Sugaoka said he is stunned that a facility he regarded as safe and impregnable appears to be melting down. 

"Never in my mind did I expect to see this," he said in an interview. "This is unbelievable."

Sugaoka says Fukushima appears to have become vulnerable after losing not only its primary power source but also two backup systems following last week's earthquake and tsunami. That power failure appears to have knocked out cooling systems used to prevent spent fuel from releasing dangerous radiation. 

"Lots of bad things happen when they lose power," said Sugaoka, flipping through photo albums and files from his experience at the facility. "It’s a matter of odds. They just never considered the factor of a tsunami making their diesel generator inoperable. The backups went, too, so three things went. They never thought it would go to three."

Sugaoka, 59, landed a job working for a GE service unit in 1977. The unit sent crews to repair and inspect nuclear reactors around the world. He described work on the Fukushima plant as unpleasant, but said it was made easier by the high salary he received for descending repeatedly into the nuclear reactors, which were scorching hot in summer. 

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"It was a good-money job," said Sugaoka, who grew up in Sunol, raised by parents of Japanese descent who were born in the US and spent large parts of their lives in Japan. His mother returned from Japan after Hiroshima was devastated by a nuclear bomb during World War II.

Sugaoka's job took him to the plants in Japan once or twice a year.

To reach the reactors, Sugaoka and his colleagues would drive from barracks-style GE housing, through a neighborhood filled with rice fields, convenience stores and restaurants, to a gate protected by a security guard. A secure entrance into the power plant opened into a hallway that took the men past smoking and meal rooms into an area where they changed into white body suits and donned masks.

After leaving the changing room, the engineers walked down a concrete hallway lined with a succession of vacuum-sealed doors. When one of the doors opened, music by Beethoven would fill the hallway, alerting the workers that the door was open. Only one door was to be opened at a time.

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