Workers at Japan’s Nuclear Reactors Are Taking Huge Health & Safety Risks

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On a daily basis, workers face many occupational hazards. In an emergency, the number and nature of those hazards may increase dramatically. But should workers be allowed or even forced to face those increased hazards for what’s arguably the greater good? That’s what the 50 workers still at Japan’s crippled nuclear power plants are currently doing.

50 Workers Trying to Stabilize Reactors

According to the New York Times, workers at the reactors in northern Japan are performing what have been described as heroic tasks. And as of Tuesday, the small crew of technicians, braving radiation and fire, were the only people remaining at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station—and perhaps Japan’s last chance of preventing a broader nuclear catastrophe.

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.

They are the faceless 50, the unnamed operators who stayed behind. They’ve volunteered—or been assigned—to pump seawater on dangerously exposed nuclear fuel, already thought to be partly melting and spewing radioactive material, to prevent full meltdowns that could throw thousands of tons of radioactive dust high into the air and imperil millions of their compatriots.

As for the plants’ other workers, five have died since the quake and 22 more have been injured for various reasons, while two are missing. One worker was hospitalized after suddenly grasping his chest and finding himself unable to stand; another needed treatment after receiving a blast of radiation near a damaged reactor. Eleven workers were injured in a hydrogen explosion at reactor No. 3.

Risks of Work

Suits and air packs are meant to keep radioactive particles off the skin and out of the lungs until the workers return to a safer area. Workers are trained to remove the gear in a specific way to avoid leaving any particles on their skin that would result in continuing exposure. But some forms of radiation can penetrate any gear. And gamma rays and other penetrating radiation can cause cancers and other long-term illnesses or, in high amounts, near-term illness or death.

Determining allowable exposure is usually based on three principles:

  1. Distance;
  2. Time; and
  3. Shielding.

In the Japanese plants, extensive contamination would mean that distance and shielding aren’t really factors, so the controlling variable is time.

Workers’ Possible Sacrifices

Japanese workers might be so committed that they might be willing to exceed accepted levels of exposure. They are, in fact, 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, which is five times the maximum exposure permitted for American nuclear plant workers.

The change means that workers can now remain on site longer, the ministry said. “It would be unthinkable to raise it further than that, considering the health of the workers,” the health minister, Yoko Komiyama, said at a news conference. There was also a suggestion that more workers may be brought to help save the power station.

Tokyo Electric Power, the plant’s operator, has said almost nothing at all about the workers, including how long a worker is expected to endure exposure.

Chernobyl Experience

Daiichi isn’t synonymous with Chernobyl in terms of the severity of contamination. The Ukrainian reactor blew up and spewed huge amounts of radiation for 10 days in 1986. Among plant employees and firefighters at Chernobyl, many volunteered to try to tame, and then entomb, the burning reactor—although it isn’t clear that all were told the truth about the risks.

Within three months, 28 of them died from radiation exposure. At least 19 of them were killed by infections that resulted from having large areas of their skin burned off by radiation, according to a recent report by a United Nations scientific committee. And 106 others developed radiation sickness, with nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and dropping blood counts that left them highly vulnerable to infections.

The people who had suffered radiation sickness developed other problems later, according to the report, including cataracts, severe scarring from the radiation burns to their skin and an increased number of deaths from leukemia and other blood cancers.

Evidence of Workers’ Dedication

Nuclear reactor operators say that their profession is typified by the same kind of esprit de corps found among firefighters and elite military units. The consensus is always that they would warn their families to flee before staying at their posts to the end, said Michael Friedlander, a former senior operator at three American power plants for a total of 13 years.

Adding to this natural bonding, jobs in Japan confer identity, command loyalty and inspire a particularly fervent kind of dedication. Economic straits have chipped away at the hallowed idea of lifetime employment for many Japanese, but the workplace remains a potent source of community. In addition, Japanese are raised to believe that individuals sacrifice for the good of the group.