They have become known as the “Fukushima 50.” They even have their own Twitter hash tag, #fukushima50. This group of courageous technicians has remained at their posts throughout the reactor crisis in Japan, evacuating only briefly when radiation levels spiked during a procedure to cool the reactors with seawater.
The technicians have been rotated through the danger zone to reduce the risk of sustained exposure. Fox News reports the Japanese government has raised the dosage of radiation they can be asked to endure from 100 to 250 millisieverts. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the global yearly average dose of radiation is 1.3 millisieverts (mSv). Most nuclear plant workers soak up an extra mSv or two per year. 250 mSv is the recommended maximum limit for exposure to cosmic radiation during a space mission, and five times what American nuclear technicians can be legally subjected to. These technicians are eating a lifetime of radiation with every passing day. Some experts have compared it to getting hit by a chest X-ray every couple of hours.
Their task, as described in the New York Times, involves “crawling 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.” To accomplish this task, “they breathe through uncomfortable respirators or carry heavy oxygen tanks on their backs.” They must sometimes work quickly in environments that could kill them in a matter of minutes.
A CBS news report on the Fifty relates that one of them told a Japanese official he was “not afraid to die” because “that was his job.” Most of them had family living near the reactor complex, but everyone within 20 miles has been evacuated. They fight now for the lives of people beyond the horizon.
Today the Tokyo Electric Power Company sent in another fifty technicians to provide reinforcements. The Japanese government is quietly worried about finding replacements for these people, if they are no longer able to perform their duties. Such courage is rare and priceless in any corner of the globe.
There has been a lot of hysterical media coverage of the Japanese nuclear crisis, but one thing is certain: the valiant efforts of these technicians have kept a lot of worst-case scenarios in check. The brightest moments in human history have occurred when too much was asked of brave men and women… and they gave even more. When the history of the twenty-first century is written, the Fukushima 50 will stand among its greatest heroes.