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.
Many, if not all, of these men will die prematurely, some of them soon. Without more help on the scene, their efforts might be as futile as those of thousands of young Japanese who flew out over the sea to try to stop the American assault upon their home islands in late 1944 and 1945. Apparently, even these 50 heroes have now been evacuated, possibly through direct intervention from Emperor Akihito.
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 that officials acknowledged on Wednesday was what appeared to be yet another fire at the plant and indications that the containment vessel surrounding a reactor may have ruptured. That reactor, No. 3, appeared to be releasing radioactive steam.
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.
Were there more justice in this world, the entire board of directors of General Electric and of the Japanese firms responsible for the existence of these plants where they were (they are no longer existant as power plants in a positive sense) would now be taking their places.
Were there even more justice in this world, the board of directors of GE and the Japanese firms involved with creating this planetary mess would now be preparing to disembowel themselves with some very dull knives.