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Out of Fukushima, into new uncertainty

By Steven Jiang, CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Nuclear plant worker saw walls collapse
  • He took his family to opposite coast
  • He doesn't believe company is telling all it knows

Kashiwazaki, Japan (CNN) -- Tears suddenly welled up in his eyes as the middle-aged Japanese man recalled the longest drive home in his life a little over a week ago.

"Daiichi ... my house ... six hours," he said in broken English.

Through an interpreter, he explained that, when a 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck northeastern Japan on March 11, he lost all contact with his family and it took him six hours on damaged roads to reach home, located 50 kilometers (30 miles) away from his workplace inside Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

Extending his arms as if to hug someone, he relived the moment of relief and excitement when he finally saw his wife and children after fearing the worst.

With the unprecedented quake and ensuing tsunami crippling the Daiichi plant, his employer has been at the center of an unfolding nuclear emergency. Afraid of losing his job, this worker has asked CNN to conceal his identity.

Memories of that fateful Friday afternoon still haunted him as he met with a reporter in Kashiwazaki, a sleepy seaside city 300 kilometers (186 miles) away from Fukushima on the opposite coast of the island nation.

"I was working in a generator facility just outside the reactors when the quake hit," he said. "I thought it was just another mild one but it kept going for two or three minutes.

"I told everyone to get out -- I was scared," he added, gesturing to describe how the walls collapsed and the ground cracked.

Experts track fallout from Fukushima

Standing outside a public gymnasium that he now calls home, the 40-year-old father of two young children confessed his new worry: radiation.

The Japanese government has evacuated more than 200,000 residents within a 20-kilometer (12-mile) radius of the Daiichi plant and advised people living between the 20- and 30-kilometer zones to stay indoors.

He decided not to take chances and brought his family to Kashiwazaki, where local authorities have turned community centers into temporary shelters for several hundred Fukushima residents -- including employees of the power plant.

"They all say on TV that they give us all the facts, but I have my doubts," he said of officials from Tokyo Electric Power Company, operator of the stricken Daiichi plant. "I want things to get better but I don't think it's going to be easy."

Struggling to cool four of the six reactors after fires or explosions inside, the power company has deployed helicopters and fire trucks to spray water into pools where spent fuel rods are stored. Reports about exposed fuel rods especially worry the man, a 17-year plant veteran.

"I think that's a big trouble," he said, reiterating his unease about going home soon.

If he came here for peace of mind, however, Kashiwazaki -- site of the country's last nuclear scare -- seems a rather ironic choice. A powerful 6.6-magnitude quake shook the region in 2007, causing a fire and a leak of radioactive gases from the local Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant, owned by the same power company.

The Daiichi worker says he is aware of the 2007 incident, but focuses on more immediate concerns. With his children already making new friends in the shelter, he says he tries to settle in among people facing the same plight.

When the radiation fears clear, he doesn't rule out returning to Fukushima -- and even to the Daiichi plant, the only workplace he has ever known.

"If an earthquake and tsunami of the same magnitude were never to come again, I would like to go back and work there," he said. "It's my hometown after all."