In a nation’s most tragic moments, its greatest heroes are born. On September 11th, 2001, the U.S. drew on the strength of the firefighters, police officers, and other rescue officials who tirelessly worked to save lives at the World Trade Center.
And now in Japan, in the wake of a magnitude-9 earthquake, tsunami and a nuclear disaster, a group of nuclear plant workers are proving their courage.
The ‘Fukushima 50’ is the name given to the 180 employees of the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant who were assigned, or volunteered, to remain on-site after other 800 workers were evacuated during the Fukushima I nuclear accidents to continue to attempt to bring the reactors under control.
All of them are being bombarded with huge levels of radiation and battling explosions and fires as they fight to save the plant. Five of their number have already been killed.
Yesterday, the stories of their heroism and resilience in the face of “certain death” began to emerge. The desperate battle to save the plant began shortly after the earthquake struck.
For three desperate days (from Friday till Monday), Michiko Otsuki and her colleagues worked all-out to control the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant. In the midst of the post-earthquake chaos, she watched her co-workers quietly put their lives on the line, doing all they could to stave off a meltdown with little thought for their own safety.
“In the midst of the tsunami alarm, at 3am in the night when we couldn’t even see where we were going, we carried on working to restore the reactors from where we were, right by the sea, with the realisation that this could be certain death,” she wrote on her blog.
She continued: “The machine that cools the reactor is just by the ocean, and it was wrecked by the tsunami. Everyone worked desperately to try to restore it. Fighting fatigue and empty stomachs, we dragged ourselves back to work. There are many who haven’t gotten in touch with their family members, but are facing the present situation and working hard.”
But when she was finally evacuated on Monday, leaving behind a small emergency team, she was surprised to discover that her countrymen didn’t seem grateful for these acts of on-the-job heroism. Instead they’d gone on the attack, focusing their rage on Tepco, the plant’s owners, for not doing more to prevent the crisis.
Ms Otsuki felt compelled to defend herself and her colleagues. “People have been flaming Tepco [Tokyo Electric Power Company, the plant operators]. But the staff of Tepco have refused to flee, and continue to work even at the peril of their own lives,” she wrote.
“Please stop attacking us. Please remember that. I want this message to reach even just one more person. Everyone at the power plant is battling on, without running away.”
“To all the residents [around the plant] who have been alarmed and worried, I am truly, deeply sorry. I am writing my name down, knowing I will be abused and hurt because of this. There are people working to protect all of you, even in exchange for their own lives.”
There are 50 workers attempting to tackle the blaze at any one time, but the total, with shifts and rotations, is thought to be 180. Last night Tepco drafted in a further 150 workers.
The new recruits will face huge levels of radiation. The Japanese government has raised the legal limit of radiation to which the workers can be exposed to 12 times the U.S. legal dose for radiation staff.
John Large, an independent nuclear safety consultant, said: “If you receive a dose of 250 millisieverts [the new Japanese limit], you will start to see some long term changes to the blood and symptoms like reddening of the skin.”
“The higher the dose of radiation you are exposed to, the higher your risk of cancer. If the dose gets up to 1,000 millisieverts you are looking at long term tissue damage, and at 5,000 millisieverts you are dead within a week or a month. Anything over and above that, you’re instantly frazzled.”
For the families of the workers, there is nothing to do but wait and hope. One girl wrote on Twitter: “My dad went to the nuclear plant, I’ve never seen my mother cry so hard. People at the plant are struggling, sacrificing themselves to protect you. Please dad come back alive.”
Media outlets lauded the remaining workers bravery as “heroes”. France 24 called them “Japan’s faceless heroes”, British newspaper, The Guardian wrote: “Other nuclear power employees, as well as the wider population, can only look on in admiration.”
A 27-year-old woman whose Twitter name is @NamicoAoto tweeted earlier this week that her father had volunteered for Fukushima duty. A day later she tweeted, “I heard that he volunteered even though he will be retiring in just half a year and I my eyes are filling up with tears…”
“At home, he doesn’t seem like someone who could handle big jobs… but today, I was really proud of him. And I pray for his safe return,” she added. [via The Telegraph (UK), Gimundo, ABC News and Globe and Mail ]