Japanese nuclear plant workers emerging as heroic figures in tragedy

Amid the horror and devastation of the nuclear crisis in Japan, it can be easy to miss the heroism of the 50 emergency workers trying to prevent the full meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility. It's not exaggeration to say that the safety of thousands of Japanese citizens hinges on the efforts of the crew of cleanup workers left behind after the remainder of the facility's roughly 800 employees have been evacuated amid hazardous levels of radiation. Even in a culture that places a premium on self-sacrifice, these ordinary workers are being extraordinarily selfless -- and could conceivably make the ultimate sacrifice for their fellow citizens' well-being.

Who these 50 workers are remains something of a mystery. Their employer, the Tokyo Electric Company, has not provided their details. But after a new explosion at the plant this morning, their fate may be becoming more perilous by the minute. As nuclear power consultant Arnold Gundersen told the New York Times, it's likely the company has approached older plant retirees with a sobering invitation to reinforce the plant safety crew. Plant managers "may also be asking for people to volunteer to receive additional exposure," Gundersen told the Times' Henry Fountain.

Below is a Today Show interview with scientist Edwin Lyman, who explains to Meredith Vieira the severe risk plant workers are taking in the course of trying to stave off further destruction:

The workers' efforts are all the more striking in view of the stark legacy of mass exposure to nuclear radiation in recent Japanese history. During the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, thousands of Japanese citizens died particularly horrific deaths due to acute radiation exposure -- and many blast survivors were stricken with various forms of cancer later in life.

Of course, the remaining workers inside the Daiichi plant are not going in blindly -- they are experts in their field, and well versed in the health risks they're facing. They're also equipped with state-of-the-art gear designed to protect them from exposure -- but those are weak safeguards against high levels of radiation exposure. Radioactive particles can penetrate just about anything a human can wear -- and from there, can be readily absorbed into the skin or inhaled into the lungs. Gundersen also told the Times that each worker is likely carrying a dosimeter, a device that measures radiation exposure -- and that once the device detects too-high levels of radiation present, superiors would instruct them to leave the area.

Now, however, it's unclear whether any worker on the site is reasonably safe. Several reports out today say that radiation levels at the plant spiked Tuesday to unprecedented levels after the facility's fourth reactor overheated and reached a boiling point. This latest setback came after a hydrogen explosion caused a fire, sending radioactive material directly into the atmosphere via smoke. Meanwhile, plant workers continued to try to cool down the plant's heavily damaged second reactor by pumping water from the sea directly into it.

With the crisis deepening, comparisons to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster -- the worst nuclear power crisis the world has ever seen -- are becoming more frequent. Unlike the Daiichi facility, the Chernobyl site had no containment wall, so the radiation from the plant's meltdown spread much more widely than would likely be the case in the event of a Daichii meltdown. But the health hazards facing cleanup workers in both episodes make for a closer, and more sobering, comparison. When the ill-fated plant in the Ukraine melted down, a large number of the 176 workers on duty that evening were exposed to enormous doses of radiation, with many of them dying within weeks of the disaster. The plant's meltdown and the subsequent environmental contamination are believed to have adversely affected the health of roughly half a million men and women in and around the Ukraine in the quarter century since the Chernobyl incident.

(Photo: AP, NTV Japan via APTN)