The ‘Fukushima 50′: Nuclear Workers Stay Behind to Brave Plant’s Woes

BY Lea Winerman  March 16, 2011 at 12:34 PM EDT

As the nuclear crisis continued in Japan Wednesday, the world’s attention turned to small corps of thus far anonymous workers who make up the last line of defense against a nuclear catastrophe at the earthquake and tsunami-damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi plant.

Almost no information has been released about the workers, who stayed behind — at great personal risk — as their colleagues were evacuated. Those workers are now battling to keep the reactors cool enough to prevent a meltdown.

Originally called the “Fukushima 50,” according to news reports the crew grew Wednesday to 180 workers working in shifts of 50.

The New York Times takes a detailed look at the life-threatening risks the workers are facing:


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.

Those remaining 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.

“These are heroes,” Dr. Chandon Guha, a radiation expert at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, told NPR — echoing the opinion of many others.

Also around the Web:

One noble trait that the Japanese admire is gaman. It is their word for the ability to persevere, endure, and overcome, with patience. Right now a few dozen workers at the seaside Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex have decided to stay put, rather than flee, in order to curtail the radiation leaks caused by Friday’s 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami. Even if they don’t succeed, Japan may remember them for their gaman despite personal exposure to dangerous levels of radiation.

“These are good guys. After all, they have had it even worse than we did. They had a tsunami first and now there are several reactors with problems. That’s a nightmare for any atomic worker,” he told Reuters on Wednesday.

Find all of the NewsHour’s coverage of the Japan earthquake and tsunami here.