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FRONTLINE: Inside Japan’s Nuclear Meltdown

Airs Tuesday, October 1, 2013 at 10 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: A fire engine douses the spent fuel pool of Reactor 3 at Fukushima Dai-ichi.

FRONTLINE continues its investigation of nuclear safety with an unprecedented account of the crisis inside the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex after a devastating earthquake and tsunami struck Japan on March 11, 2011.

With exclusive eyewitness testimony from key figures in the drama — including the Japanese prime minister and senior executives at the power company Tepco — FRONTLINE tells the story of the workers struggling frantically to reconnect power inside the plant’s pitch-dark and highly radioactive reactor buildings; the nuclear experts and officials in the prime minister’s office fighting to get information as the crisis spiraled out of control; and the plant manager who disobeyed his executives’ orders when he thought it would save the lives of his workers.

The story profiles the Japanese soldiers and firefighters drafted to cool the reactors, who were wounded when the reactor housings exploded; and the families, living near the nuclear plant, who unknowingly fled in the same direction as the radioactive plume, exposing themselves to dangerously high radiation levels.

“When I heard the diesel generators were lost,” reactor inspector Takashi Sato tells FRONTLINE, “I couldn’t square that with reality. I was stunned.” As the fuel started to melt, a special group of soldiers tried to inject water directly into the core of one of the reactors. “Just as we were about to get out of the car to connect the hose,” Col. Shinji Iwakuma says, “it exploded. Radioactive matter was leaking in through the bindings of our masks due to the blast. Our dosimeter alarms were ringing constantly.”

Fukushima residents were making their own life-and-death choices. Farmer Norio Kimura, whose father, wife and youngest daughter were missing, had to decide whether to abandon his search in the rubble for family members or risk exposure to radiation for himself and his surviving daughter. “I now thought it was dangerous to stay. Iodine tablets were being handed out in the village,” he tells FRONTLINE. “I had to take her somewhere safe. We had to get far away from the nuclear plant.”

This episode originally aired in 2012.

Past episodes of FRONTLINE are available for online viewing. FRONTLINE is on Facebook, and follow @frontlinepbs on Twitter.

Inside Japan's Nuclear Meltdown

In the desperate hours and days after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the fate of thousands of Japanese citizens fell into the hands of a small corps of engineers, firemen and soldiers who risked their lives to prevent the Daiichi nuclear complex from complete meltdown. This is their story, with rare footage from inside the plant and eyewitness testimony from the people on the frontlines.

Video

One Pilot’s Dangerous Mission to Stop Fukushima’s Nuclear Meltdown

Above: Editors’ Note: This program and clip contain video recorded during the disaster, combined with footage filmed later.

Video

Above: Related Video: Inside the Fukushima Reactor: In an attempt to look at the damage inside one of its failed Fukushima reactors, the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) inserted an 8.5mm remote-controlled endoscope and thermometer into the containment vessel of a failed reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. The footage, which you can see above, is the first interior view of the disabled reactor unit 2, one of three reactors that failed in March 2011.

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