In 1999, a laboratory technician named Hisashi Ouchi was involved in a nuclear accident at a power plant in Japan, resulting in him becoming the worst-ever victim of nuclear radiation in the country. For 83 days, Hisashi was kept alive through experimental means, despite experiencing unbearable pain and suffering. This incident raises questions about the ethics of his treatment, particularly, "why was Hisashi kept alive for 83 days against his will in such unbearable pain and suffering?"
Cause Of The Second Tokaimura Nuclear Accident
On September 30, 1999, at around 10:35 am, the Second Tokaimura Nuclear Accident occurred at a uranium fuel reprocessing plant in Japan, operated by Japan Nuclear Fuel Conversion Co. (JCO). This disaster resulted in two fatalities and is considered one of the worst civilian nuclear radiation accidents in the world. The plant was located in the village of Tokai in Naka District, Japan.
On the day of the accident, three laboratory workers - Hisashi Ouchi (35 years old), Yutaka Yokokawa (54 years old), and Masato Shinohara (39 years old) - were on shift at the lab. Hisashi and Masato were preparing a batch of nuclear fuel by adding a uranium solution to precipitation tanks. However, due to their lack of experience, they accidentally added an excessive quantity of uranium (around 16kg) to one of the tanks, causing it to reach a critical state. Suddenly, a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction was triggered, resulting in a blue flash and a catastrophic accident.
The Fate Of Hisashi Ouchi
Tragically, Hisashi was the closest to the explosion and suffered the most severe injuries. He received a dose of 17 sieverts (Sv) of radiation, while the maximum permissible annual dose is 50 mSv (1 Sv = 1000 mSv) and 8 sieverts is considered a lethal dose. Both Masato and Yutaka also received fatal doses of 10 sieverts and 3 sieverts, respectively. All three individuals were rushed to Mito Hospital for treatment.
Hisashi suffered severe burns over 100% of his body and experienced damage to many of his internal organs. The radiation also devastated his immune system, reducing his white blood cell count to nearly zero and destroying his DNA.
The radiation caused damage to the chromosomes in Hisashi's cells. Chromosomes are structures found in cells that contain genetic information and act as blueprints for the human body. Each chromosome is numbered and can be organized in a specific order.
Unfortunately, it was not possible to properly organize Hisashi's irradiated chromosomes due to their fragmentation and sticking together. The destruction of these chromosomes meant that new cells could not be produced, leading to further complications in his treatment.
The radiation also caused visible damage to Hisashi's skin. Initially, doctors treated his burns using standard surgical tape. However, as his condition worsened, they found that the tape was causing his skin to peel off when removed. Eventually, they were no longer able to use the tape at all.
In healthy skin, new cells are continually generated through rapid cell division to replace old cells. However, Hisashi's irradiated skin was unable to produce new cells, causing his old skin to peel off. This caused him severe pain and made him vulnerable to infections.
Hisashi also developed fluid accumulation in his lungs, which made it difficult for him to breathe.
What Does Nuclear Radiation Do To The Human Body?
Within the nucleus of each cell in the body are tiny structures called chromosomes that play a vital role in the function and reproduction of cells. Chromosomes are made up of two strands of a large molecule called deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). Nuclear radiation damages the atoms in the body by removing electrons, which breaks the bonds in DNA and causes damage. If the DNA in a chromosome is damaged, the instructions that control the cell's function and reproduction are also damaged, leading to cell death. If the cells can replicate despite the DNA damage, they may produce more mutated or damaged cells that can lead to cancer.
The Aftermath Of The Nuclear Disaster
In response to the accident, 161 people from 39 households within a radius of 350 meters around the conversion building were promptly evacuated. As a precautionary measure, residents within 10 km of the site were advised to stay indoors.
However, the nuclear chain reaction restarted as the solution cooled and the voids disappeared. The following morning, workers were able to permanently halt the reaction by draining water from a cooling jacket around the precipitation tank. The water had been acting as a neutron reflector. To ensure that the contents remained subcritical, a boric acid solution (chosen for its ability to absorb neutrons) was added to the tank.
After two days, residents were allowed to return home with the use of sandbags and other kinds of shielding to protect against residual gamma radiation. All other restrictions were lifted with caution.
The Last Ditch-effort By The Advanced Medical Teams To Keep Hisashi Alive
Internal infections and Hisashi's almost skinless exposed body surface were causing him to be poisoned from both the inside and the outside simultaneously.
Despite undergoing several skin transplants, Hisashi continued to lose body fluids through the pores of his burns, leading to unstable blood pressure. At one point, he was even bleeding from his eyes, causing his wife to describe it as if he was crying blood.
As Hisashi's condition worsened, he was transferred from the National Institute of Radiological Sciences in Chiba, Chiba Prefecture to the University of Tokyo Hospital. It is reported that he underwent the world's first transfusion of peripheral stem cells at this hospital in an attempt to stimulate the production of white blood cells in his body.
Peripheral blood stem cell transplantation (PBSCT), also known as "peripheral stem cell support," is a procedure used to replace blood-forming stem cells that have been damaged or destroyed, such as by radiation or cancer treatment. The patient receives stem cells through a catheter placed in a blood vessel, usually located in the chest.
The Japanese government prioritized Hisashi's critical case and assembled a team of top medical experts from Japan and abroad to treat his severe radiation injuries. In the process, doctors kept him alive by administering large quantities of blood and fluids daily and treating him with drugs imported from various foreign sources.
It has been reported that during his treatment, Hisashi repeatedly requested to be released from his unbearable pain, and at one point even stated that he did not want to continue being a guinea pig.
However, it was considered a matter of national dignity that put pressure on the special medical team to continue their efforts to save Hisashi, despite his desire to die. As a result, they made every effort to keep him alive for 83 days, even though his condition continued to deteriorate. On the 59th day of treatment, his heart stopped three times within 49 minutes, causing serious damage to his brain and kidneys. Despite being placed on total life support, Hisashi ultimately died on December 21, 1999, due to multi-organ failure.
Hisashi Ouchi is considered the worst victim of nuclear radiation in medical history, spending the final 83 days of his life in a painful inpatient condition.
Did Yutaka Yokokawa And Masato Shinohara Also Die?
Meanwhile, Masato Shinohara and Yutaka Yokokawa were still in the hospital, struggling to survive. Masato appeared to be improving at one point and was even taken on a wheelchair trip to the hospital gardens on New Year's Day 2000. However, he later developed pneumonia and his lungs were damaged by the radiation he had received. As a result, Masato was unable to speak and had to communicate through written messages to nurses and his family. Some of these messages contained emotional pleas such as "Mommy, please!"
In the end, Masato also passed away on April 27, 2000, due to multi-organ failure. Yutaka was more fortunate and was able to recover after staying in the hospital for over six months. He was eventually released to recuperate at home.
There is a book called "A Slow Death: 83 Days of Radiation Sickness" about this tragic incident, which refers to "Hisashi Ouchi" as "Hiroshi Ouchi." The book documents the 83 days of treatment until his death, including detailed descriptions and explanations of the effects of radiation poisoning.
Investigations And The Final Report Of The Second Tokaimura Nuclear Accident
After conducting a thorough investigation, the International Atomic Energy Agency determined that the accident was caused by "human error and serious breaches of safety principles." According to their reports, the accident was triggered when the three lab workers used too much uranium to create fuel, resulting in an uncontrolled atomic reaction.
As a result of the nuclear disaster, a total of 667 people, including both nearby residents and emergency workers, were exposed to radiation.
Further investigations revealed that the workers at the plant, operated by JCO Co., routinely violated safety procedures, including using buckets to mix uranium to speed up their work.
Six employees, including the plant administrator and accident survivor Yutaka Yokokawa, pleaded guilty to a charge of negligence resulting in death. The president of JCO also pleaded guilty on behalf of the company.
In March 2000, the Japanese government revoked JCO's license, making it the first nuclear plant operator to be penalized under Japanese law regulating nuclear fuel, materials, and reactors. The company agreed to pay $121 million in compensation to resolve 6,875 claims from people exposed to radiation and businesses affected by the disaster.
At the time, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori expressed his condolences and vowed that the government would work hard to prevent a similar accident from occurring in the future.
However, in 2011, Japan was hit by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, the most severe nuclear accident in the world since the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. It was caused by a technical failure during the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami on Friday, March 11, 2011.
The First Tokaimura Nuclear Accident
Two years before the Second Tokaimura Nuclear Accident, the First Tokaimura Nuclear Accident occurred at a nuclear reprocessing plant of the Dōnen (Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation) on March 11, 1997. This incident is sometimes referred to as the Dōnen accident.
At least 37 workers were exposed to elevated levels of radiation during the First Tokaimura Nuclear Accident. A week after the incident, meteorological officials detected unusual levels of cesium 40 kilometers southwest of the plant.
Caesium (Cs) is a soft, silvery-golden alkali metal with a melting point of 28.5°C (83.3°F). It is obtained from nuclear reactor waste.
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