Hisashi Ouchi / Useful Notes - TV Tropes (2024)

Hisashi Ouchi was a Japanese nuclear power plant technician, best known for enduring the highest level of radiation any one person has ever survived. Consequently, he also suffered what many consider one of the most cruel and unusual deaths of all time.

In 1999, 35-year-old Hisashi worked as a technician at that Tokaimura Plant, located in Tokai in the Ibaraki Prefecture and owned by the Japan Nuclear Fuel Conversion Co. (JCO), which manufactured fuel rods for use in nuclear reactors. At the time, the facility was rife with poor management oversight, inadequate safety, improper methods of producing materials, and lack of proper education for its workers on nuclear material. Safety guidelines stated that production of fuel rods, which involves mixing uranium hexaflouride with nitric acid, should be done with large mixing, storage and precipitation tanks. At Tokaimura, workers were mixing them in handheld steel buckets.

These practices were not uncommon at the time, and the 1999 incident wasn't Tokai's first accident, as the region's open land made it ideal for nuclear facilities. On March 11, 1997, workers at the nearby Dōnen Corporation facility attempted to incinerate low-level nuclear waste in a closed area. Improper handling caused a fire and the facility was evacuated, leading to a small explosion that shattered windows and damaged the roof, allowing radioactive gases to escape. Dōnen attempted to downplay the severity of incident for days, even stating that radiation levels were only 20% higher, when the real figure was closer to 200% and gases were still leaking out. Public outcry led to the facility being closed until November 2000.

At 10AM on September 30, 1999, Hisashi and his colleague Masato Shinohara were asked by their supervisor, Yutaka Yokokawa, to help with the conversion process. JCO was behind on their orders of fuel rods and so they were ramping up production. Not only did this involve using a bucket to dump material into a storage tank, but the concentration of uranium the men used contained was upped to 18%note. To make matters worse, the storage tanks were smaller wider than the safety-approved versions, which are literally slimmer to prevent too much uranium from being close together top prevent criticality.

At 10:35 AM, as Hasashi was standing over the tank pouring the bucket, Masato was holding a funnel under it and Yutaka was sitting at a nearby table, a blue light and loud clap erupted out of the tank. The three became some of the only people in history to ever witness a completely unshielded nuclear reaction. Alarms blared and an evacuation began for the facility and surrounding communities, while Hisashi and his colleagues were taken to the hospital.

Kazuhiko Maekawa, a professor at the University of Tokyo Hospital, was called in to assess and treat the three victims of the incident. Yutaka had been exposed to about 3 Sieverts of radiation, Masato had been exposed to 10 Sieverts, and Hisashi was believed to have been exposed to 8, but later it was estimated to be 17 Sieverts, over twice the lethal dose. Somehow, despite that, he was still alive. In fact, despite Hisashi's nausea and a drop in his white blood cell count, he seemed fine. Dr. Maekawa, fearing what the effects of the radiation damage would be, had him transferred to the University Hospital on October 2.

To protect him from potential infection, as his immune system was shot, his room at the hospital was turned into a quarantine facility with staging and cleaning. Even then, the only symptoms he seemed to have were fairly common, and even his right arm, which was directly exposed to the radiation, only looked sunburned.

Doctors and nurses who were treating Hisashi described him as a pleasure to be around. He was kind, thankful for their assistance and was honored to have so many smart people around to help. He talked with them about how he was an outdoors-man who loved to go fishing and that he couldn't wait to see his family again. Overall, he was in high spirits throughout his early days in the hospital, and many of the staff were hopeful that he'd be out soon.

To help Hisashi, Dr. Maekawa had called in experts from thirteen different fields, from blood transfusion to gastroenterology. They put together a system where 7AM marked their daily analysis of Hisashi's condition, a meeting at 8AM for treatments and what to do for the rest of the day, and a review at 6PM for their effectiveness. Specialists and nurses would meet for hours every single day, effectively living in the hospital.

Hisashi's wife, son, parents, sister and brother-in-law also visited Hisashi every single day during visiting hours, and also began living within the waiting area. Dr. Maekawa would give them regular updates on his condition and even had the waiting area made up with brighter colors and games to make it more accommodating for them. Throughout their stay in the hospital, the Ouchi family would spend most of their time folding paper cranes.

On October 5, a sample of Hisashi's bone marrow was taken to assess the damage to his immune system. That's when it was discovered that his chromosomes weren't just damaged, they were completely destroyed. His body had no blueprints to make new blood cells, meaning it could no longer fight off infections or even heal. Any infection, any small cut, could prove fatal. Naturally, the first order of business was to provide him with a marrow transplant from his sister to try and rebuild his immune system.

The first serious symptoms were the destruction of his mucus membranes and large pieces of his skin peeling and sloughing off. He was initially giving a respirator to help him breathe, but as breathing became more difficult and fluid accumulated around his chest, the machine was cranked up to compensate. This proved very painful for Hisashi, and infamously, he ripped off the mask and screamed "I'm not a guinea pig!" However, when someone mentioned his family, he made the choice to endure the pain for them. This was eventually switched out to a breathing tube, and October 10 was the last time he spoke, that being his last spoken messages to his wife. The staff were still able to communicate with him through gestures, but to make up for the lack of conversation, they brought in a stereo to play music and sounds of nature for him.

While the marrow transfusion from his sister initially seemed to work, a biopsy on October 15 found that somehow her chromosomes were also damaged. This, combined with their finding that his gut was no longer digesting food, were proof that simple treatments wouldn't be enough. By October 28, experts were brought in from all over the world to provide their expertise for theoretical treatments, as well as observations for what this case would mean for radiation treatment in the future.

Over the next few weeks, Hisashi's body began falling apart. The muscles in his right arm liquefied, his intestines were swollen and the lining was gone, large amounts of fluid were leaking through his destroyed skin, and the tissue around his eyes fell apart, causing them to bleed. The doctors gave him everything from full-body bandage dressings to keep him from dehydrating and dying of hypothermia, to more and more machines hooked up to him as his organs shut down one by one. All through this, his heart rate continued climbing, from 120 BPM to 164 BPM over the course of a month.

There were, however, moments where it seemed he could potentially recover. The skin cells on the border between his damaged front side and his back showed patches of new growth, while his intestines also showed signs that the lining was regenerating. This made Dr. Maekawa and his colleagues hopeful that, if they could keep him alive long enough, his body would recover. Through all of this, his family and the staff were also very supportive, still speaking to him like they did during the first week he arrived.

Even so, there was considerable ethical discussion among doctors and nurses who questioned whether or not what they were doing was right. Some felt that his condition was unsalvageable, while others saw even the slight signs of recovery as proof that they need to keep performing their jobs.

Then, on the morning of November 27, Hisashi suffered three heart attacks within the span of an hour. While the staff were able to restart his heart and his brain showed activity, he no longer moved or responded to stimuli, suggesting he was now in a vegetative state. His blood work also showed signs that he was on the verge of kidney and liver failure, and his heart could no longer run without vasopressors.

On December 1, Hasahi developed hemophagocytosis, an autoimmune condition where the white blood cells begin eating the red blood cells, requiring a full plasma transplant that took three days to complete. Between the life support equipment, constant blood transfusions, bandages, skin grafts, and now evidence that his own cells are trying to kill each other, Dr. Maekawa came to the conclusion that there was nothing more they could do.

On December 19, he brought the Ouchi family to an office that had all of Hisashi's vitals on charts and computers, and spent many hours explaining every detail of the situation to them, to help them understand that Hisashi is now just a body kept alive by machines. He felt that, the next time his heart gives out, they shouldn't try to restart it. The family's response was a simple "We understand." December 20 was the last time his family saw him, with the staff replacing the gauze on his face with a thinner variety so they could see him.

At 11:21 PM on December 21, 1999, Hisashi Ouchi finally passed away, after surviving 83 days. His wife was the only family member who saw him after all the machines and bandages were removed, and for the first time since the incident began, she cried.

An autopsy was performed at 4:03 AM, where much of the damage was properly analyzed. Incredibly, despite his other systems being rotted, swollen and falling apart, his heart was completely undamaged. It was strained, but there were no signs of burns or decay anywhere. To this day, no one knows exactly how this was possible, and even some of the doctors believe it was solely due to Hasashi's will to live. At 9:45 AM, Hisashi was buried by his family, and his wife returned to the hospital to thank the doctors for everything they'd done.

As for the others in the criticality accident, Yutaka Yokokawa recovered after three months of mild radiation sickness and would face charges of criminal negligence in October 2000. Masato Shinohara, while not suffering as large a dose or symptoms as severe as Hisashi, still received a fatal dose. He entered Dr. Maekawa's care on April 10, 2000, and eventually died on the morning of April 27, 211 days after the accident. After his retirement, Dr. Maekawa published the heath guidelines for treating radiation sickness.

Yutaka and five other JCO bosses were arrested and faced around 2-3 years in prison, all of them claiming that the materials they were handling were not as dangerous as they believed. An investigation into the Tokaimura Plant found the host of safety violations, and on June 6, 2005, it was torn down. By then, six years later, the tank that caused the incident was still radioactive. It was removed and taken to a nuclear history museum, where it can still be viewed.

Likewise, in the University of Tokyo Hospital, the ten thousand paper cranes folded by the Ouchi family can still be seen hanging in the waiting area.

Hisashi Ouchi / Useful Notes - TV Tropes (2024)


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