Elite squad of technicians face fire, radiation and exhaustion in cramped and potentially lethal conditions to cool reactors.
The men and women struggling to avert disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant are becoming the faceless heroes of the worst nuclear industry crisis in Japan’s history.
The 70 or so technicians and engineers, known as the Fukushima 50, have been working under the constant threat of radiation sickness, fires and explosions since they became the sole occupants of an area that has become a no-go zone for tens of thousands of petrified residents.
With more than 700 of their colleagues pulled out to safety, the workers are fighting a lonely battle on several fronts in the war against nuclear meltdown. Their workload is heavy, but the weight of expectation, in Japan and around the world, is greater still.
For all their bravery, little is known about the workers themselves. Tokyo Electric Power [Tepco] has released few details of its elite team, other than those pertaining to the task ahead: to cool overheating reactors and storage pools, and avert disaster.
They are working in hot, cramped conditions, clad in white, full-body jumpsuits and working in shifts to prevent contamination and exhaustion. They are equipped with respirators and torches, and when radiation doses rise tohazardous levels, as they did on Wednesday morning, they must be ready to take refuge in safer areas of the complex. The operation has already taken its toll. Eleven people, including members of the Japan Self-Defence Forces, were injured in a hydrogen explosion at its No 3 reactor.
Other nuclear power employees, as well as the wider population, can only look on in admiration. “The people working at these plants are fighting without running away,” Michiko Otsuki, an employee at the nearby Fukushima Daini plant, wrote on the Japanese social networking site Mixi. “Please don’t forget that there are people who are working to protect everyone’s lives in exchange for their own.”
The prime minister, Naoto Kan, who has reportedly criticised Tepco executives for their handling of the crisis, has only praise for their employees. They are “doing their utmost”, Kan said, “even at this moment, without even thinking twice about the dangers”.
For as long as the workers remain inside the plant they will mitigate the substantial risks to their health by “dose sharing” – or splitting their time between areas of high and low levels of radioactivity – according to Dr Ian Haslam, head of radiation protection at the University of Leeds. But abandoning the operation could spell disaster, he said. “They need to be at the plant to take the measures to keep it under control.
“If you let it go, it will get hotter and hotter, there’s a risk of fire, and you’re changing from this present rate of release, which is worrying but at a relatively low risk, to something that becomes a higher risk both now and in the future.”
Andriy Chudinov, one of the first workers to enter the Chernobyl power plant in 1986, said his Japanese counterparts were, if anything, even more courageous. “These are good guys,” he said. “After all, they have had it even worse than we did. They had a tsunami first and now there are several reactors with problems. That’s a nightmare for any atomic worker.”
David Brenner, the director of radiological research at Columbia Service, pointed to the significant risks the workers are taking with their health.
“In many ways they are already heroes,” he told the BBC World Service. “[They] are going to be suffering very high radiation exposures.”
Meanwhile, 500 bone marrow transplant centres across 27 European countries have been put on alert to treat nuclear power station workers whose lives may be threatened in the battle to avoid a meltdown. The European Group for Blood and Marrow Transplantation offered to treat 200 to 300 patients if necessary.
“After a person has been radiated, you have three to four days before they’re on the cusp of severe complications,” said Ray Powles, chair of its nuclear accident committee. “At that point, they could be put on a flight to Europe if Japanese facilities are overwhelmed.”
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