Nation marvels at bravery of workers

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 March, 2011, 12:00am

The frontline workers braving dangerous radiation levels to stabilise Japan's stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant have warned they are 'ready for anything' - a Japanese euphemism for death. The government authorities insist they are being kept from anything that will harm their health in the long term - a claim overseas experts doubt.

With signs that the situation at the plant is finally stabilising, attention turned to the plight of the 300-odd plant technicians, police, firefighters, soldiers and helicopter pilots involved in efforts to contain the dangerous situation at the facility, badly damaged by the earthquake and tsunami that struck northeast Japan.

After hydrogen explosions crippled emergency pumps supplying seawater coolant to the plant, ordinary fire hoses and helicopter drops of seawater have been used to try to cool unstable spent fuel rods.

At times, a hard core of workers - known as the Fukushima 50 - were pushed back when radiation levels soared to a dangerous level of 400 millisieverts an hour.

The late editions of Tokyo's newspapers last night were filled with cries of defiance from the workers. 'We are prepared for anything,' said one unnamed member of the Self-Defence Forces from the plant. Then there was the 59-year-old father who works at a similar plant in western Japan volunteering for duty - even though he was six months from retirement.

'The future of nuclear power operations depends on how this is handled,' he told his daughter, the Jiji news agency said. 'I want to go there with a sense of mission.'

Known as the 'duct tape warriors' in reference to the way they seal the seams of their protective suits, they drew praise from a senior government nuclear safety official last night. 'They have a very heavy responsibility and I would like to applaud their courage and bravery,' said Hidehiko Nishayama, the deputy director general of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

Nishayama has repeatedly insisted the workers' exposure time is being strictly controlled according to legal limits. Last night he said: 'I'm not worried about long-term effects on their health.'

The government and the plant's owner, the Tokyo Electric Power Co, have raised those limits since the crisis began. During the emergency, workers can be exposed to 100 millisieverts an hour - with an overall maximum of 250 millisieverts a year.

In normal conditions the average Japanese nuclear plant worker is exposed to 50 millisierverts over five years. The government estimates that the risk of cancer increases by 0.5 per cent when exposure reaches the 1,000 millisierverts mark.

While foreign experts have noted the risks to the general public from radiation accidents are frequently overstated, few are playing down the dangers faced on the front line.

Dr Donald Bucklin, who spent 10 years as medical director for the Palo Verde nuclear plant in Arizona, the largest nuclear plant in the United States, believes radiation sickness is a threat for the workers.

High doses of radiation can penetrate the body like X-rays. This kind of direct exposure attacks quickly, dividing cells in the body such as the lining of the gut.

A lot of radiation over a short period causes burns or radiation sickness and also significantly increases one's cancer risk. Symptoms of radiation sickness include nausea, weakness, hair loss, skin burns and reduced organ function. If the exposure is large enough, it can cause premature ageing or death.

'These people are very brave. Nuclear workers ... all have 10 times more exposure than the rest of us because you get a little bit more working around the plant,' Bucklin said.

'You can keep them from inhaling radioactive particles. That can help. But you are talking about intensive beam radiation. You can only shield so much against that. You can't walk around with 300 pounds of lead wrapped around you.

'These people, I think, are doing the moral equivalent of throwing themselves on a hand grenade.'