On the road to Fukushima Daiichi, Japan’s stricken nuclear power plant a big sign says it all. It reads ‘Danger – entry forbidden.’ It is the beginning of a 30 kilometre exclusion zone; beyond it, the threat of radioactive contamination increases substantially.
The only people allowed past this point are the experts desperately working around the clock to try to cool the site’s reactors to avert a major meltdown.
They have been dubbed nationally as the Kamikazes, the Samurai Warriors and even the Liquidators. The risks to health in such conditions are potentially deadly. Despite those dangers it is reckoned about 50 workers stayed on site with 20 others joining them afterwards.
Radiation exposure is highly controlled and regulated. Two millisieverts is the typical annual dosage experienced by everyone, while those in the industry are exposed, on average, to a current limit of around 20. Anything around a 1,000 millisieverts or above can immediately harm health, notably hair loss, nausea, burns as well as serious problems to the immune system.
The potential dangers of atomic power to human health are well know, but for many working in the nuclear industry, such risks come with the territory.
‘‘It’s part of my job. My responsibility as a nuclear operator. It’s a risk that one takes and everyone is aware of,’‘ Marc Faugeas, a French nuclear worker at Dampierre power plant said.
It was a different story, however, during the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Soviet Ukraine. Thousands of ill-equipped workers were sent to the site to clean up the mess not knowing the huge risks to their own health that were involved. As a result, many were fatally contaminated during the decontamination work.
One former worker at Chernobyl said: “The general came and said: ‘I would rather have 2,000 people contaminated if it lets 200 million people live’. We were sent to work at the reactor, to clean up the waste. Now, only half of my unit is still alive.”
In Japan, much now depends on the unknown few who are battling to contain the unfolding crisis at the Fukushima plant. It is a monumental responsibility.