The employees attempting to fix the Japanese nuclear plant of Fukushima, damaged by the 2011 tsunami disaster, are seen as heroes in the eyes of the world. They are not supermen, but instead some frightened people of flesh and bone, with real names and real families. Their first accounts about the work carried out in dark and narrow spaces talk about the fear of radiation and the unknown, as well as the anguish of their loved ones. They are also filled with the willpower to move forward.
In Fukushima, men routinely queue up for radiation controls, mostly dressed in gray hooded sweatshirts and brown tracksuit trousers. Everyone carries a plastic bag with their own clothes in. Many have a pitiable appearance of gaunt, dark-circled eyes. It doesn’t come as a surprise when you consider where they come from and where they will be back again in a few hours.
The extraordinary value of "the 50 of Fukushima", the small group of people willing to risk their lives to save their country from nuclear disaster, has made an impression all around the world. But these fifty individuals - several hundred, in fact, if we take into account shifts and rotations - have been invisible heroes. Until today.
Kazuhiko Fukudome, who took a specialized group of firefighters to the reactor number 3 when it began to melt, said "It was dark as the lion's den; we had only the headlights of our helmets. We saw smoke coming from the reactor and steam, and were ordered to pump sea water to cool machinery. We are not even government employees, we are mere workers of the City of Tokyo. The authorities were desperate and did not know what to do”. The riskiest mission of the firemen started at 11 pm with a phone call. "The instructions were strict," said Fukudome, "gather your men and go to Fukushima”. He turned to his wife and told her where he was sent. She was stunned, but managed to remain calm and simply asked him to be careful.
Fukudome never considered the possibility of refusing to go, but of course thought of everything else. "No one on our team opened his mouth on the way to the nuclear power plant," he tells. “We were all just worried. We're trained to deal with almost all situations, but this was a very different enemy. We felt very apprehensive". His fears soon became reality. "The thing was much worse than I imagined. There was rubble everywhere. The road was impassable. We could not get closer to the sea enough to build up the water hose. So we had to drag racing over a mile to reach the shore, in total darkness. We tried to encourage one another”. "Come on!", "We’re almost there!", he shouted. But only when he finally saw the water gushing and began to spray the reactor, the team relaxed, raising howls of happiness. The hoses can be run on automatic, so the team could rest. For a moment.
Apart from the masks, the men were only equipped with a standard uniform. They knew that there was some form of radiation, but did not know how. They were dressed in a white jacket and a second coat over the uniform. That was all. Fukudome recall that they "worked for 26 hours straight, and then we were subjected to analysis and testing. Some radiation was found on my clothes and socks, so they seized me. We washed and scrubbed thoroughly and re-tested. I was still showing signs of radiation, but not to a very high degree, so I was finally let go. "I know it sounds strange, but I am convinced that nothing will happen to me. The clothes I was wearing that day were indeed contaminated on the surface, but the radiation did not enter my body".
Surprisingly, the place where most of the workers rest is a nice sailing boat, the Kaiwa Maru, which had set sail to Honolulu. But after the tsunami, it was dispatched to where it was most needed: a few kilometers south of the nuclear plant, in the port of Onahama. The Kaiwa Maru, currently moored at a pier less damaged, has an electric generator, potable water and all the necessary supplies (provided by midshipmen). In the dining room, some fifty men are seated at tables covered with plastic and given a decent plate of curry stew, the first hot meal in many days. There are also other fine amenities like a hot shower and a bunk with sheets.
But no one here is in peace. Overwhelmed by fatigue and anxiety, the silent workers "spend their days quietly, perhaps too much" says Susumu Toya, first mate of the ship. "Nobody is talking at meals." And when you do speak with them, soon it refers to darkness and fear, again and again. "Fortunately, electricity returned to the central on Tuesday. It was horrible to work in such darkness. The thing was very dangerous", said Akira Tamura, a young electrical equipment specialist. "Some of the cables to be repaired are at the top. The resulting operation is not as simple as previously believed, and it is a fact that we are worried". Tamura prefers not to elaborate the matter further.
Just like the firefighters, these workers have a mostly rudimentary protection. All wear masks, but the crucial protective, lead-lined costume is only available to a few dozen specialists who spend most of their time inside the plant. There are simply no safety suits for everybody.
Two of his comrades have been sent to hospital with severe radiation burns, after the contaminated water slinked through the top of the waterproof rubber boots and soaked their ankles and feet as they walked by waterlogged area in Reactor 3. The radiation level in this pond is creepy: 5 sieverts, or 10,000 times the normal level. If the water is absorbed by the body one way or another, the worker is basically sentenced to death.
The group's leader, Nobuhide Suzuki, explains: "The boys are very nervous. There is a lot of tension, but we must continue. We are all aware of our big responsibility; we feel a great weight on our shoulders. But the fact that the whole world is watching and is with us is very helpful. We feel we are not alone. It is very important that the world continues to support us".
None of the workers on the ship has returned to see their relatives since they were recruited for the rescue operation. "What I crave most is to see my wife and my parents," says Tamura. Suzuki, meanwhile, said:" I could contact my family only once, by telephone. My children told me they were very proud of me. My wife was so nervous she could hardly utter a word".
In addition to being separated, Tamura, the Suzuki and other relatives of the men in the Maru Kaiwa have lost their homes, now living in shelters. In many cases, the tsunami swept away their homes literally, and the declaration of the nuclear evacuation zone has lastly let everyone on the street. "But I am sure that this is the most important mission of my life and thus it must be done, regardless. It's what pushes me forward", declares a 32 year old man who prefers to remain an anonymous hero.