In an age of 24/7 cable channels, news sites, blogs and Twitter feeds, it’s not unusual for the attention of great swaths of humanity to turn to the plight of a small number of souls, such as trapped miners or the survivors of mass shootings. When a 9.0-magnitude earthquake rocked Japan’s east coast on March 11, and a towering tsunami devastated the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, however, the world watched in horror, and with hope, as a small army of workers fought to prevent the plant’s nuclear reactors from melting down and filling the skies with deadly radiation. Rarely before did so many feel they had so much at stake in the success of so few.
They became known as the Fukushima 50, a nameless, faceless last line of defence against a full-blown nuclear catastrophe. They stayed behind when, four days after the earthquake and tsunami happened, spiking radiation levels forced the evacuation of 700 employees of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which owned and operated the plant. That skeleton crew struggled to pump water into the reactors to keep them from overheating.
It was brutal work, and the threat of radiation poisoning was constant. A series of hydrogen gas explosions destroyed reactor containment buildings, sending 11 workers to hospital. Throughout the ordeal, workers were also constantly buffeted by aftershocks and the threat of yet another destructive wave washing through the power plant.
Simply wading through the thick, black water that flooded much of the facility was a potentially deadly undertaking. The force of the tsunami had blown out manhole covers, leaving gaping holes beneath the surface. In a few cases, while walking through coolant water, radiation spilled over the tops of boots. The water was 10,000 times the normal allowable level, or 24 times the amount a worker would normally be exposed to in a whole year, and at least two workers experienced severe burns to their legs and feet. As Britain’s Telegraph newspaper reported at the time: “If the water was absorbed by their bodies in any way, those two workers will almost certainly die.”
The world could only imagine the horrors inside the Fukushima facility, though snippets emerged. One worker, Michiko Otsuki, posted a blog in which she said TEPCO employees would not run away from the fight. “There are people working to protect all of you,” she wrote, “even in exchange for their own lives.” Soon the Fukushima 50 became heroes to the world.
Even so, in the months since the Fukushima crisis, the world’s focus on those brave workers has faded—though not entirely. In September, Spain’s Prince of Asturias Award for Concord was given to the “heroes of Fukushima,” for displaying “the highest values of the human condition by trying to prevent, through their sacrifice, the nuclear disaster caused by the tsunami.”
Of course, there were never just 50 who risked their lives to battle the nuclear meltdown. The true number of workers and firefighters who stayed behind ranged from 70 to 200 at different times. In July, a Japanese government document surfaced that claimed more than 1,600 workers will have been exposed to high levels of radiation in the process of keeping the reactors under control. The Fukushima 50 name, therefore, may be misleading, but the heroics of those individuals, whatever their number, should not be forgotten.