By Aloke Mukerjee in New York City
In conversation with Akio Suzuki and Hiroyuki Kimura
One of the most serious civil nuclear accidents has taken place at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant which is operated by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). Reactor buildings have been rocked by explosions, caused after damage was sustained from a massive earthquake and tsunami (the term tsunami comes from the Japanese 津波, composed of the two kanji 津 (tsu) meaning “harbor” and 波 (nami), meaning “wave“) on March 11, 2011. A series of explosions damaged 4 of the plant’s 6 nuclear reactor buildings. Failures in cooling systems lie at the heart of the problem. Each nuclear reactor heats water into steam; the steam turns turbines to generate electricity. But after the earthquake control rods automatically activated to stop nuclear reactions and to shut down the reactors. However, cooling systems failed because power supplies had been damaged by the tsunami. The lack of power meant water stopped circulating and began to boil, creating steam. The fuel rods got hotter and reacted with the steam, creating hydrogen gas. When engineers vented this gas and steam outside the pressure vessel, the hydrogen gas exploded, damaging the reactor buildings. Officials took the unusual step of attempting to swamp the reactors with sea water as an emergency coolant. They also used boric acid, which hampers nuclear reactions. There are fears that explosions at reactor 2 damaged its suppression chamber – a water- filled structure, which helps condense steam. If breached it may allow steam containing radioactive substances to escape continuously. There have also been 2 major fires at reactor 4, where storage pools ran low on water. These ponds are designed to cool used nuclear fuel. On March 17 helicopters dropped water on reactor buildings 3 and 4, with the aim of replenishing water in storage ponds containing spent fuel rods. To bring the situation under control, power needs to be restored to the plant’s damaged cooling system. Then, pumps can be used to bring the nuclear fuel back to safer temperatures.
- BBC News
The Fukushima 50, a skeleton crew risking their own lives to save their country from nuclear disaster, has gripped the world. They are the reluctant heroes in the realm of an unprecedented disaster.
Technicians, soldiers and firemen working in shifts of fifty, have been exposed repeatedly to dangerously high radioactive levels. The mother of one of the men admitted that the group has discussed their situation and have accepted that death is a strong possibility.
Amidst the information overload on the nuclear crisis in Japan, it can be easy to overlook the perceived heroism of the fifty emergency workers trying to thwart a nuclear meltdown (A meltdown is an informal term for a severe nuclear reactor accident that results in core damage from overheating.) of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear facility. To say the least, the safety of thousands of Japanese hinges on the efforts of the crew of cleanup workers left behind. Historically Japanese culture places a premium on self-sacrifice. These ordinary workers could conceivably be making the ultimate sacrifice for their brethren.
Hundreds of workers are feverishly trying to stabilize the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant amid brutal living conditions.
In the following narrative Akio Suzuki, 39, provides a graphic description of what he and his fellow workers are enduring everyday, giving us a lingering reflection of our own vulnerability and frailty, hopes and fears during this unfolding tragedy. Names have been altered to provide anonymity as requested.
“The darkness is broken by the flashing torch lights of those of us who have stayed behind. From Tuesday through Saturday I have been in the plant’s Emergency Office, which is housed in an earthquake-resistant building. The room is being used as a command center, dining hall and bedroom.
When an explosion occurred in reactor #2 on March 15, there were about 800 workers in the quake-resistant building. All but 50 who were in charge of supplying water to the reactors were evacuated. I was one of the 50. I was terrified and wanted to be with my family, not yet aware that my wife and daughter were missing. Each morning we hold a meeting to review the quickly changing situations inside the reactors and assign tasks for the day. We work from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. After that we return to the quake-resistant building for dinner. While most go to bed by 10 p.m. those on the night shift stay up monitoring machinery until morning.
For the day’s first meal each worker gets 2 packages of about a dozen cookies and a small carton of vegetable juice. The next consists of rice and vegetables or curry and a can of chicken, tuna or other meat. Each worker is limited to 1.5 liters of water a day and uses alcohol to wash hands and is unable to bathe. A change of clothes is rare.
Although plans are in the works to get workers more food and other much needed items, bringing in supplies using helicopters is impossible because of the high levels of radiation around the complex. So far TEPCO has used buses on a sporadic basis.
Immediately after the accident we were living on dried bread. Working continuously and sleep-deprived I was so exhausted that I could hardly chew. Crushed by exhaustion and worry, we sat in silence. An offer to share a
lone bottle of Sake’ found on the premises was turned down. And when someone did break the silence it was about the darkness and the fear. I was dreaming of a cup of tea.
Added to all this is that because of the high levels of radiation outside the building the room cannot be ventilated and we have to wear our masks at all times, even indoors to protect ourselves. The cold really seeps in at night, but all of us have to sleep in the 376 sq ft main office and hallways packed like sardines, which helps keep us warm. Some line up chairs to spend the night on. On the first few days I worked 23-hour shifts with a 1 hour break for a nap.
To reduce the radiation levels inside we have put lead sheets on the floor. Extremely high levels of radiation have been measured in the puddles of water in the turbine buildings. Two of my colleagues were hospitalized with serious radiation burns as a result of coming in bodily contact with contaminated water which spilled into their boots, on to their legs and feet, while they were walking through a coolant pool in reactor 3. A third was spared by his taller boots. The amount of radiation in that water 10,000 times the normal level and up to 24 times the workers’ entire yearly exposure allowance. Those two will almost certainly die.
Older retirees are encouraged to volunteer during nuclear emergencies, not because they’re more expendable, or even because they’re more skilled, but because even if they’re exposed to massive amounts of radiation, history has shown they would die of old age before they die of radiation induced cancers, which can take decades to develop. Such is the irony of fate.
At the end of the meetings at night we gather around for a group cheer. “Let’s do our best!” we cry out loud with a synchronized clap, try to boost our morale. Many cry.
Five of my colleagues have died so far and 15 injured while others have said they know the radiation will kill them.
I want the world to know that we are not faceless supermen but real, scared people with names and families. We are frightened human beings working in narrow, dark spaces battling a faceless enemy, but determined to go on. We’re fighting every day. Please keep supporting us.”
The mission of feeding seawater onto the hot reactors for steam to bleed away the heat continues. Feed and bleed.
But what really helped the workers was when a volunteer worker, hailed as a ‘White Knight’ by a nuclear expert put in a new power line in place. “I heard that he volunteered even though he will be retiring in just half a year and I my eyes are filling up with tears… At home, he doesn’t seem like someone who could handle big jobs…but today, I was really proud of him. And I pray for his safe return,” his wife wrote.
The original fifty men were later joined by 150 colleagues and rotated in teams to limit their exposure to the radiation spewing from over-heating spent fuel rods after a series of explosions at the site. Japan, and in fact the world has rallied behind the workers with relatives telling of heart-breaking messages sent at the height of the crisis.
According to ABC News a woman said her husband continued to work while fully aware he was being bombarded with radiation. In a heartbreaking email, he told his wife: ‘Please continue to live well, I cannot be home for a while.’
One girl tweeted in a message, “My dad went to the Nuclear Plant. I never heard my mother cry so hard. People at the plant are struggling, sacrificing themselves to protect you.”
“Please Dad come back alive,” read a tweet by Twitter user @nekkonekonyaa.
An email from the daughter of a Fukushima Fifty volunteer was shared on national television and said, “My father is still working at the plant – they are running out of food…we think conditions are really tough. He says he’s accepted his fate…much like a death sentence…”
In the rubble of Ishinomaki city, Miyagi Prefecture where the earthquake and the tsunami caused massive damages, Fujiko Miura(70) continues to look for her missing husband Masayuki (75) every day. She wears the green jumper which her husband handed to her just before the tsunami swept him away. She said “Like a warm hug of husband” -. In July this year, they were to celebrate their golden wedding anniversary. They were at home when the earthquake hit. Masayuki held the altar while Fujiko put out the fire of the stove and opened the front door. Masayuki said to Fujiko, “Get out soon! Go to the school (which their grandchildren attend) “. Masayuki took his jumper off and handed it to Fujiko. He said, “It is cold. Wear it. I will follow you later.” That was last words which they exchanged. She heard from a neighbor later that Masayuki called out to evacuate their neighborhood from door to door after she parted from home.
– Yomiuri Online, April 3, 2011
In the face of adversity courage may mask our fears but the yen to go on for the sake of others is the true mark of a civilized society and culture.