A small crew of technicians, braving radiation and fire, became the only people remaining at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station on Tuesday — and perhaps Japan’s last chance of preventing a broader nuclear catastrophe.
They crawl through labyrinths of equipment in utter darkness pierced only by their flashlights, listening for periodic explosions as hydrogen gas escaping from crippled reactors ignites on contact with air.
They breathe through uncomfortable respirators or carry heavy oxygen tanks on their backs. They wear white, full-body jumpsuits with snug-fitting hoods that provide scant protection from the invisible radiation sleeting through their bodies.
They are the faceless 50, the unnamed operators who stayed behind. They have volunteered, or been assigned, to pump seawater on dangerously exposed nuclear fuel, already thought to be partly melting and spewing radioactive material, to prevent full meltdowns that could throw thousands of tons of radioactive dust high into the air and imperil millions of their compatriots.
They struggled on Tuesday and Wednesday to keep hundreds of gallons of seawater a minute flowing through temporary fire pumps into the three stricken reactors, Nos. 1, 2 and 3. Among the many problems they faced was what appeared to be yet another fire at the plant.
The workers are being asked to make escalating — and perhaps existential — sacrifices that so far are being only implicitly acknowledged: Japan’s Health Ministry said Tuesday it was raising the legal limit on the amount of radiation to which each worker could be exposed, to 250 millisieverts from 100 millisieverts, five times the maximum exposure permitted for American nuclear plant workers.
The change means that workers can now remain on site longer, the ministry said. “It would be unthinkable to raise it further than that, considering the health of the workers,” the health minister, Yoko Komiyama, said at a news conference.
Tokyo Electric Power, the plant’s operator, has said almost nothing at all about the workers, including how long a worker is expected to endure exposure.
The few details Tokyo Electric has made available paint a dire picture. Five workers have died since the quake and 22 more have been injured for various reasons, while two are missing. One worker was hospitalized after suddenly grasping his chest and finding himself unable to stand, and another needed treatment after receiving a blast of radiation near a damaged reactor. Eleven workers were injured in a hydrogen explosion at reactor No. 3.
Nuclear reactor operators say that their profession is typified by the same kind of esprit de corps found among firefighters and elite military units. Lunchroom conversations at reactors frequently turn to what operators would do in a severe emergency.
The consensus is always that they would warn their families to flee before staying at their posts to the end, said Michael Friedlander, a former senior operator at three American power plants for a total of 13 years.
“You’re certainly worried about the health and safety of your family, but you have an obligation to stay at the facility,” he said. “There is a sense of loyalty and camaraderie when you’ve trained with guys, you’ve done shifts with them for years.”
Adding to this natural bonding, jobs in Japan confer identity, command loyalty and inspire a particularly fervent kind of dedication. Economic straits have chipped away at the hallowed idea of lifetime employment for many Japanese, but the workplace remains a potent source of community. Mr. Friedlander said that he had no doubt that in an identical accident in the United States, 50 volunteers could be found to stay behind after everyone else evacuated from an extremely hazardous environment. But Japanese are raised to believe that individuals sacrifice for the good of the group.
The reactor operators face extraordinary risks. Tokyo Electric evacuated 750 emergency staff members from the stricken plant on Tuesday, leaving only about 50, when radiation levels soared. By comparison, standard staffing levels at the three active General Electric reactors on the site would be 10 to 12 people apiece including supervisors — an indication that the small crew left behind is barely larger than the contingent on duty on a quiet day.
They are remarkable heroes; I have tears in my eyes just thinking about them.
I keep thinking of the disasters we've all witnessed, thanks to modern communications, over the past 10 years or so. Earthquakes in Pakistan, Haiti, and Japan. Tsunamis in Malaysia and now again in Japan. Hurricanes in New Orleans and typhoons in Australia. Large-scale terrorism in New York and elsewhere. Wars, live and televised.
Most of the time, we can do only very little. We can send money or clothing; we can work to send food to the rescue workers, if we're nearby. We can help rebuild. But at the time of disaster, we can't do anything; we can only watch the massive destruction as it unfolds - and pray for those affected. It's very strange, really; we can see everything that happens, all the time and everywhere - but we can't do anything about most of it.
In the old days, we wouldn't even have heard about most of these things for months or years - if ever. Now we watch them as they happen, helplessly.