I usually write about American politics and what is affecting our nation. Today, I write about groups of workers who risked their lives not just for their families, not just for their country, but to protect potentially millions, possibly hundreds of millions, around the world. These were not highly trained military personnel, they were just everyday workers. Cajun
Let us start with the Fukushima 50, these were the workers who stayed with the crippled nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant after the earthquake and tsunami disaster had hit, and hit with a vengeance in March of 2011. I am not going into the charges leveled since then against TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) about what they did, or did not do in regards to informing the workers concerning potential risks, nor what they offered these workers financially. Let’s face it when you work around nuclear power and there is an explosion in a reactor, you know you are not in safe conditions. Imagine being asked to go into a highly radiated environment, wearing suits that you know are no more protection than rice paper wrappings on your feet would be when walking across hot coals. 700 fellow workers were evacuated and 50 stayed behind, the Fuksushima 50. We will likely never know how many will die from the exposure they received as Japan is not exactly open with that kind of information to the world. Koichi Nakagawa was one of the famed 50, and he lives…for now. He has been tested since those days, but has yet to be fully informed of the results. It is okay, he knows he received doses high enough that, barring some unnatural accidental death, he will die from his radiation exposure. He says he stayed for many reasons, but one is “He did not want to seem a coward.” Japanese people have a high sense of duty, to family, to country, and yes, even to the company who employs them. He was working for a subcontractor when the tsunami hit, and he stayed partly because he did not want TEPCO to refuse his employer work in the future. Would that have entered my mind in times like that? Honestly? Nope. Would it be a factor for you?
Just to put it in perspective, wrap your head around the following: Under Japanese law, nuclear plant workers cannot be exposed to more than 100 millisieverts over five years, but to cope with the Fukushima crisis, the health ministry raised the legal limit on March 15 to 250 millisieverts in an emergency situation. Radiation of up to 49 millisieverts per hour was detected inside the building on April 17 when the company sent in a robot. Workers were sent into the building for ten minute intervals in 2 man teams. They were exposed to levels of radiation that they had to know were nowhere near safe. I don’t care how many times your government “revises” the numbers on what they now consider acceptable, these men knew they were risking their lives. But, they also knew that if they did not go in, a meltdown would occur. That would be followed by more nuclear explosions, and their families, their beloved nation, and the world, would be put in harm’s way. Unfortunately explosions did occur, as did meltdowns, but the braveness of The Fifty and the many that followed them, likely averted unimaginable tragedies.
I try to imagine the discussions they had with their wives and children before going in. What do you say in a situation like that? “I love you, and if I don’t make it out…….” How do you fill in the rest of that sentence? I have no idea, and I pray I never have to utter that sentence in my lifetime. Since that fateful tsunami two years ago, thousands of Japanese have worked at the radiated site, cleaning up and stabilizing. This next group is something special.
Yasuteru Yamada, 72, a retired engineer, had an idea: Why allow all these young men to risk their lives? He asked, “Why not let pensioners do this?” His reasoning? We are old, we have lived full lives. Many of the cancers that will develop from this radiation exposure will take years to develop, by then we will likely be dead anyways. Also, at their ages, cells divide slower, which means cancer will develop at a less rapid rate. Doesn’t sound like much to stake your life on, does it? So, he started to organize pensioner volunteers to take over for the younger men, men who still had a chance to procreate, another little benefit that radiation steals from your body. Along with Nobuhiro Shiotani, a childhood friend who is also an engineer, they formed the Skilled Veterans Corps. About 400 people volunteered, including a singer, a cook and an 82-year-old man.
Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, reactors did explode and meltdowns did occur. To date, some estimate that as many as 20,000 deaths, worldwide, can be attributed to radiation directly from Fukushima. Yamada, not allowed to bring his Corps into Dai-ichi, has toured the world to speak of the dangers we all still face from this disaster. Perhaps I will write next week of some of the Japanese and TEPCO’s mishandling and ensuing cover-ups. For today, two years later, I salute the Fukushima 50, and the thousands who still risk their lives in Dai-ichi, to protect us all. These are men who dare to enter the mouth of the dragon, and pull its teeth while it is awake. I leave you with this closing thought from Yasuteru Yamada on why he wants to go in and help contain the deadly radiation, likely risking, surely shortening his life. He says that it was his generation that conceived of, sold the public on, designed, and built the nuclear power plants. Therefore, it should be their duty to clean the mess up. How many of us here have that sense of duty and responsibility?