Retreat 'unthinkable' as workers ready to pay ultimate price
Fifty technicians are placing their lives on the line to avert a nuclear tragedy, writes Andrew Gilligan in Tokyo
They work sweating in airtight suits, fighting disaster in a plant collapsing at their feet. They brave explosions and fires that have already killed five of them and may have blasted the others with life-changing radiation. They are the 'Fukushima 50', the handful of people who are all that now stands between Japan and the world's second-worst nuclear accident.
In a country already brimming with stoic courage, this skeleton crew is surely the bravest of the lot. They are not just technicians, but also soldiers and firefighters. They are middle-class control room and health personnel and working-class technicians. There are 50 or so at any one time, but the total, with shifts and rotations, may be as many as 180. The odds against them are great -- and growing.
"It doesn't look good at all," says Matt Tuck, a 22-year veteran of the British nuclear industry who is now business director of Matom, a consultancy specialising in nuclear plant operation and emergency management. "Fifty is a very small number, given that there are six reactors. They are at pretty serious risk."
Last night, the Japanese government raised the legal limit of radiation 'the 50' could be exposed to by 150pc -- more than twelve times the British legal dose for radiation staff.
'The 50' themselves have been silent. But they appear to be under no illusions about the gravity of their position. A control room technician at the plant told a colleague who has been evacuated that he was perfectly prepared to die. It was, he said, his job.
The wife of another of 'the 50', speaking on television last night, said her husband had not been able to talk to her since the disaster, but had managed to send an email. "His replies indicated a serious situation," she said. "He told me to take care of myself because he wouldn't be home for a while."
The terror of their experience is clear. Danny Eudy, from Texas, was one of a number of American technicians working at the plant when the earthquake struck. "He was in shock when he called," said his wife, Janie. "He said everything was falling from the ceiling. He walked through so much glass that his feet were cut."
Then came the tsunami, carrying away homes and vehicles and, crucially, destroying the pumps that kept the radioactive fuel rods cool.
After back-up systems also failed, the workforce, at first about its normal strength of 1,800, fought to maintain cooling by pumping seawater. But when a series of explosions rocked successive reactors and even seawater cooling started to fail, the vast majority of the workforce was pulled out.
Five workers have already died since the quake and 22 more have been injured; while two are missing. One worker was admitted to hospital after grasping his chest and finding himself unable to stand, and another needed treatment after receiving a blast of radiation near a damaged reactor.
The remaining workers are now frantically trying to bring multiple crises under control. They are building a temporary road for the fire trucks to reach perhaps the biggest problem of all, an overheating spent fuel pool at reactor four. The plant's narrow corridors and the need to work for only short periods because of the intense radiation are hampering efforts.
Tepco, the plant's operator, has refused to say how 'the 50' were chosen, or what choice they themselves had in the matter. At Chernobyl -- where 28 plant workers died of radiation poisoning within months -- it emerged many were not told about the risks. Japan's defence ministry has already made the same complaint on behalf of some of its soldiers involved in emergency operations on the site.
But for the professional nuclear technicians, this is a scenario that must have been played out in a thousand canteen conversations. "They will be wearing full protective gear the whole time," said Mr Tuck. "It doesn't protect against everything, but you can work for several hours. You would also dose-manage to have very short potential exposures, as short as a few minutes," he said.
'The 50' were pulled out for 45 minutes yesterday, retreating 500 metres after radiation spiked to new highs. Their final evacuation would signal that the authorities have given up.
Ultimately, however, if other people's lives can be saved by sacrificing theirs, 'the 50' will, says Mr Tuck, be asked to pay the price. "Would the authorities make that decision? I think they probably would," he said.
That choice might be the same in any country, but in Japan, with its culture steeped in memories of noble self-sacrifice, the "Fukushima Samurai" are already starting to become folk heroes.
Even Prime Minister Naoto Kan has told the crew: "You are the only ones who can resolve the crisis. Retreat is unthinkable."