Nuclear Workers Are Japan's Newest Heroes

Sasha Brown-Worsham

The 8.9-magnitude earthquake that struck Japan last week was just the beginning of a catastrophic series of events that have devastated the country and left the world watching in despair. But perhaps the scariest part of the whole thing has been the fears of a nuclear meltdown. Currently, the only thing standing between a major disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station on Tuesday were 50 of the bravest people in Japan -- the nuclear workers.

For many of us, the only image we have of a nuclear worker is the bumbling Homer Simpson who is always stopping just short of causing a nuclear disaster on The Simpsons. But in real life, the job is hard and long and, quite frankly, most of us aren't brave enough for it.

Wearing respirators and suits that don't adequately protect them from radiation, these workers are crawling on their hands and knees using flashlights to guide them in order to stave off nuclear disaster. The legal limit of radiation they're allowed to endure has already been more than doubled and currently stands five times higher than the legal limit for an American nuclear power plant worker.

These men are no Homer Simpson and what they're doing isn't funny at all. They're bravely -- and perhaps fatally -- attempting to save others at potential great personal cost to themselves. So why are we not hearing more about them?

The New York Times today has a piece discussing the sacrifices these workers are making and how, even in the face of such a global tragedy, they're so willing to risk their own lives in order to pump gallons of seawater through temporary fire pumps into the three stricken reactors.

As of today (Wednesday), officials were saying there was another fire at the plant and indicated that the containment vessel surrounding a reactor may have ruptured and that reactor number 3 was likely releasing radioactive steam.

It's terrifying and yet, in the midst of it, there are these heroes. Michael Friedlander, a former senior operator at three American power plants for a total of 13 years, told The New York Times that the devotion they show isn't atypical for power plant workers. He said:

You’re certainly worried about the health and safety of your family, but you have an obligation to stay at the facility. There is a sense of loyalty and camaraderie when you’ve trained with guys, you’ve done shifts with them for years.

Even though Japan is notorious for job loyalty and dedication, Friedlander said that he believed a similar accident in the US would also yield such bravery and compared the dedication to that of firefighters or military personnel who bond deeply with their colleagues. And yet, I'm not so sure.

If this were my family and my husband, I'm not so sure I would be willing to make that sacrifice. I would like to think I would, but I can't say for sure.

Among plant employees and firefighters at Chernobyl -- the worst nuclear disaster in history -- those who volunteered to try to tame, and then entomb, the burning reactor showed effects within three months. By then, 28 had died from radiation exposure. At least 19 of them were killed by infections from the burns. One hundred six others developed radiation sickness, with nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and dropping blood counts that left them highly vulnerable to infections.

Is this what the Japanese workers have in store? We all can pray and hope that it isn't, but one thing is clear: they are heroes and should be treated as such. They are working around the clock and sacrificing more than anyone can understand in order to save others. We should all be grateful.

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Image via Paul J. Everett/Flickr

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