No. 7: Fukushima 50

The world was on edge in the terrifying days following the Tohoku earthquake in Japan, as people watched the damaged Fukushima 1 Nuclear Power Plant. Flashbacks to Three Mile Island’s threat and the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe rippled online. Even as people researched the far-reaching effects of radiation and how it could affect the food supply, they admired the sacrifice of the engineers, many of them contractors, who worked day and night to forestall disaster.

The group’s nickname came quickly enough: They were the Fukushima 50. Accounts differ, but the name may actually describe the number of people on a team. Of the 1,800-person workforce, about 130 technicians and 50 volunteers — in white Tyvex jumpsuits, goggles, face masks, and dosimeters — worked in shifts to stave off the damage of a meltdown that had already begun.

The Fukushima Daiichi power station shut down automatically at 2:48 p.m., and the emergency power came on as planned. The GE-designed plant had been tested to withstand a 7.9-magnitude earthquake, and it still stood after a record 9.0 temblor. As long as the fuel rods in its six reactors could be cooled, a meltdown wouldn’t happen. The tsunami, however, swept through the plant’s defenses and swamped basement-level pumps, which were essential for cooling spent fuel rods. Equipment failed. Confusion may have led to a worker shutting down reactor No. 1’s cooling system, compounding the dangers.

Lifetime radiation levels
The average person receives a natural dose of two millisieverts per year from the sun and other sources. At 400 millisieverts of exposure, the Hindustan Times reported, white blood cells drop. At higher exposures come wrenching nausea, hair loss, and worse. A 5,000 millisieverts dose kills, but death isn’t immediate: Chernobyl workers, some of whom experienced their skin slipping off, died over the course of months.

The No. 1 reactor’s explosion released 1,015 microsieverts of radiation — a level of exposure that a nuclear worker was allowed to face in a year, not in one day. Reactor No. 3 exploded, injuring 11. Then the cooling systems for reactor No. 2 failed. Workers mixed seawater with boron to cool the remaining rods, an unprecedented and desperate response. Radiation levels forced the workers’ retreat, but they returned. Smoke drove them out. Again they returned. By May 3, the workforce had swelled to 1,312, among them firefighters, police officers, and the Self-Defense Forces of Japan.

It took nine days to restore power to Fukushima’s cooling systems. Another two months passed before workers could enter reactor No. 1 to lower its radiation levels. Fukushima’s accident was rated as severe as Chernobyl’s, although it released only 10 percent of the amount of radiation released in the 1986 Russian disaster. On September 29, the core temperature for all three damaged reactors finally dropped below 100 degrees. Closing the plants will take 30 years.

Bravery unrecognized
Disaster didn’t cut through the secretive nuclear hierarchy. Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) has been criticized for hiding facts and relying on inexperienced contractors who were paid half the wages of its regular employees, as well as for its complicated compensation paperwork and eventual $11.5 billion bailout.

Failures at the top only magnified the bravery at the ground level. That spirit goes way back: About 300 scientists and medical professionals, some of whom were Hiroshima survivors, volunteered to work at Fukushima. The last tally showed two people dead (Kazuhiko Kokubo and Yoshiki Tereshima, on the day of the tsunami) and more than 20 injured.

The Fukushima workers haven’t yet been formally commended in Japan, and they may not be. An October 17 profile in the New Yorker points out that their employer, TEPCO, can’t be trusted. Accolades might diminish victims’ suffering and call attention to subcontracted “nuclear gypsies.” As one worker said, “At Chernobyl, you know, the workers received medals. … We’ll be lucky if we get a commemorative towel or a ballpoint pen. We are taboo.”

They have received acknowledgement elsewhere. On September 7, Spain awarded them the Prince of Asturias Award. “The behaviour of these people has also embodied the values most deeply rooted in Japanese society,” reads the accolade, “such as the sense of duty, personal and family sacrifice for the greater good and dignity in the face of adversity, humility, generosity and courage.”

The Yahoo! Year in Review editorial lead for five years running, Vera H-C Chan dissects news events, pop-culture idiosyncrasies, and online behavior to probe the “why” behind what’s hot online. On Yahoo!, her articles can be found in News, TV, Movies, and her Shine blog Fast-Talking Dame. Across the Net, there are remnants of contributions to a cultural travel guide, martial arts encyclopedia, movie criticism, business profiles, and A&E/features reporting.