Japan has a long, fraught history with nuclear energy, from the Fukushima meltdown caused by the March 2011 earthquake off the northeastern coast of the island, to the atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima that ended the second World War, killing tens of thousands of Japanese civilians immediately and hundreds of thousands more due to radiation poisoning as time went on. Perhaps the most famous pop cultural export from Japan in the 20th century, Godzilla, was created as a parable and allegory about the dangers inherent when human beings’ careless hubris with nuclear energy and nuclear power got out of hand. The case of Hisashi Ouchi’s radiation exposure and subsequent treatment remains a cautionary tale more than two decades after the fact and is but another traumatic event in Japan’s painful nuclear past.
Hisashi Ouchi was employed as a plant worker at the Tokaimura Nuclear Power Plant, tasked with reprocessing uranium by a company called JCO. A report put out by the World Nuclear Association determined that, in addition to the company’s workarounds of regulatory policy, unsafe transfer practices, and use of outdated equipment, the workers had minimal to non-existent training for many of the duties they were expected to perform. On September 30, 1999, as Ouchi was pouring a potent solution of uranyl nitrate into a containment tank that was not equipped to handle the amounts of radioactive material it was meant to process, the tank reached critical mass and a nuclear fission chain reaction developed, according to a contemporaneous Washington Post article.
The lone survivor of the event, Yutaka Yokokawa, corroborated what Ouchi later told investigators they witnessed at that moment: a loud banging noise and an intense blue flash, as immense amounts of neutron beams and gamma radiation filled the room. This sequence of events is detailed in a report issued by the International Atomic Energy Agency following the incident One of his colleagues (Yokokawa) was viewing the transfer from behind a desk about fifteen feet away, and another, Masato Shinohara, stood closer, while Ouchi had to extend a large portion of his body directly over the tank to perform the task. This accounts for the differing severity of the effects upon the three men following the accident.
By the time a rescue team was able to move him from the accident site, Ouchi had been exposed to seventeen sieverts of radiation, more than twice what is commonly considered a fatal level of exposure. Hisashi was exposed to the highest amount of radiation any human has ever been exposed to in documented history. This extreme exposure led to Ouchi experiencing dizziness, lightheadedness, and nausea, vomiting profusely in the decontamination room before passing out. One of the other workers with proximity to the containment tank, Shinohara, displayed similar though milder symptoms directly following the tank’s explosion. As stated above, Yokokawa alone survived the aftermath of what is known in nuclear power circles as a “criticality accident,” with Shinohara succumbing in April of 2000.
As for Ouchi, after being transported via helicopter to the National Institute of Radiological Sciences and put in a room for treatment and observation, he seemed remarkably stable for days afterward and even joked around and talked to the nurses about getting better and going home. However, it became clear that his ailments were not temporary and his condition was irrevocably severe.
The Doctors did a micrograph of his bone marrow and discovered that his chromosomes were destroyed and his white blood cell count was completely depleted.
The doctors administered many methods of treatment, including an early, experimental test of stem cell therapy using his sister’s stem cells. The machinations keeping Ouchi alive grew increasingly drastic as his condition deteriorated. The radiation poisoning massively damaged his chromosomes, which in turn wreaked havoc on his internal organs, causing organ failure and a loss of bowel control.
Three weeks later his intestines start to hemorrhage and was given as many as 10 blood transfusions over the course of 12 hours.
His skin and flesh blistered and began to fall off in front of the doctors and places where he’d lost skin were seeping blood and fluids. His wife recalls him bleeding out of his eyes, like he was crying blood. He lost almost all of his body fluids in a single day, and more had to be pumped into him along with blood transfusions.
In order to curb the lost of fluids through his skin, which was nonexistent at this point, doctors administer skin transplants, unfortunately the skin wouldn’t adhere to his body.
A nurse’s written record of Ouchi: “No more” “I’m going home” “Please stop” “Mom”
He was put into a coma for a short time when his symptoms became too painful for him.
2 months after the accident, Ouchi body continuously hemorrhages, his heart works overtime to pump enough blood through his body. He heart averages 120 beats per minute and the strain on on it is immense.
On November 27, his heart stops. He was resuscitated 3 times despite begging for his suffering to end.
Nonetheless, the doctors’ measures kept getting more intricate and complicated, as their interest in studying Ouchi’s condition, symptoms, and reactions to treatment superseded their concern for his agony.
The justification for keeping Ouchi alive for such an extended period was the subject of heated debate following his eventual death. Scientists and medical professionals claimed that the data they collected from his case would be useful in the event of future radiation-based injuries. His family members also held out hope for a long time following the accident that Ouchi may miraculously recover from the accident.
Nearing the end however, Ouchi was literally begging the doctors to allow him to die, reportedly telling them, “I’m not a guinea pig.” Finally, a do-not-resuscitate order was put into effect, and when Ouchi suffered a severe cardiac arrest and his vitals began shutting down. After an agonizing 83 days of hell, doctors finally allowed Hisashi to die.
A book written by the NHK TV Crew, A Slow Death: 83 Days of Radiation Sickness, took a measured view of the medical professionals and placed much of the blame on the company itself for placing employees in such a dangerous work environment. Reports from the agencies who investigated the accident afterward didn’t remark on the moral implications of Ouchi’s treatment either, again focusing on the failures and business practices of JCO and the management running the facility.
The moral of this story can be twisted to serve the views of any number of the participants. The company was cutting corners, so Ouchi’s agonizing death was a cautionary tale of corporate neglect and malfeasance. The doctors and scientists thought that studying the effects of the massive amounts of radiation on Ouchi’s body would be edifying and necessary to develop future treatments, so Ouchi had to suffer a drawn-out, unbearably painful exit from this world. His family, unknowingly or not, allowed this to happen, so it could also be viewed as a case of delusional devotion in the face of a situation as hopeless as this one. In the end, though, one must remember the man at the heart of the story: Hisashi Ouchi, and his desire, finally, to be let go rather than endure what those in that hospital room were doing to him, in the name of science or medicine. No one should ever be made to feel like they are nothing more than “a guinea pig.”