When horrific events like Japan’s runaway nuclear disasters happen, they get minute-by-minute coverage from media all over the world. And yet, there is one thing that still remains invisible: Who are those 50 nameless people risking their lives while working around the clock on a radioactive tinderbox in Fukushima?
Besides employees of Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) who know all the nuts and bolts in the Fukushima reactors, a team of engineers is also required on-site. Their business is not only figuring out the best way to get generators back up and running again, but also devising plans B and C. They are racing against the clock, hoping to buy time, as Japan’s armed forces and firefighters try desperate efforts to cool the reactors and those deadly blue pools housing spent fuel rods.
Reportedly, 50 to 70 people are still at “ground zero.” They include Tepco employees and “those working for companies supporting Tepco,” according to the utility company. No breakdown (how many are Tepco employees?), no company names (who are those companies “supporting”
Tepco?), let alone individuals’ identities, have been revealed.
I had thought it likely that engineers from Toshiba and Hitachi are also among the Fukushima 50. Both companies, along with GE, were Tepco contractors in building the Fukushima nukes. My speculation was confirmed last night, when I was talking to a friend in Japan. She mentioned friend, Mrs. Saito (not her real name), whose husband is an engineer in Toshiba’s nuclear power development division.
Mr. Saito, who had to leave his family behind in Tokyo, has been living in Fukushima alone. Since the quake and tsunami, he has been working around the clock. Now, says his wife, he’s on the verge of a nervous collapse — as I would be, too. Wife and daughter are now planning to go into the epicenter to be with Mr. Saito. Damn the radiation; full speed ahead.
In a nation where anonymity is preferred over notoriety, many Japanese were shocked to see, earlier this week, a blog post by a young Tepco employee. The blogger was ordered to evacuate the area a few days ago, which meant leaving behind her fiancé, also a Tepco employee, at the nuclear plant in Fukushima. She chronicled the process and disclosed her fiance’s “good-bye” e-mail. She said those still there, who’ve had very little sleep, are fighting exhaustion and hunger.
While many engineers and operators at Fukushima remain invisible, this disaster might well create an accidental hero. An early candidate is Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano (real name!), who’s been Japan’s chief government spokesman since the tsunami hit.
Unlike every other Japanese politician or bureaucrat, whose largely incomprehensible speeches tend to be a hash of evasions and ambiguities, Edano’s been a breath of fresh candor. I’ve watched him speak every few hours on NHK (Japan’s public broadcaster). Edano, an attorney by training, has struck me (well, everyone! The public loves him) as smart and articulate. He has already all-time records for getting to the point in a Japanese press conference (which actually isn’t that hard. Most of them have no point!).
Lo and behold, Edano is now an unofficial star in Japan’s Twittering galaxy. People saw Edano working with no apparent break since last Friday’s disasters, and many started to tweet, “Edano, go to sleep!”
After a flood of “Go to sleep” tweets, 104 hours after the tsunami and earthquake hit Japan, Edano finally went to bed… for a while.
The idea of a “popular” cabinet member in Japan is literally unfathomable — because these drones are the quintessential faceless functionaries — but Edano has turned the trick. According to the Twitter network, fans of the U.S. TV show “24,” have dubbed Edano the “Jack Bauer of Japanese politics.” Ooh! Does this mean we get to see him torture the Prime Minister, in prime time?
"...pilots, a type of engineer, if you will, make mistakes when exhausted."
Just about ANYONE makes mistakes when exhausted. But sometimes a job needs doing and you're the only person around who can do it, and these guys certainly stepped up. Hats off to them all.
I'm very concerned since exhaustion is one of the main issues that pilots must avoid. Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers points out the need for rest. If there is any way we can relieve them so that they can better work out current plans and plans B and C, I hope they will implement them.
Everyone brings up valid points. I want to send thoughts and prayers for the Tepco and contractor workers and their families. I hope we will find out what Tepco and the contracting companies are doing to help relieve the exhausted workers. Does the WHO or CDC have guidelines or procedures to pass along to them? Is there any way we can switch out workers with some robots so that they can work remotely? In addition to honoring the 50 who are working tirelessly, I truly hope they find a solution to this ongoing issue.
From the 2008 report on "Health effects due to radiation from the Chernobyl accident" produced by UNSCEAR (United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation):
The observed health effects currently attributable to radiation exposure are as follows:
- 134 plant staff and emergency workers received high doses of radiation that resulted in acute radiation syndrome (ARS), many of whom also incurred
skin injuries due to beta irradiation;
- The high radiation doses proved fatal for 28 of these people;
- While 19 ARS survivors have died up to 2006, their deaths have been for various reasons, and usually not associated with radiation exposure;
- Other than this group of emergency workers, several hundred thousand people were involved in recovery
operations, but to date, apart from indications of an increase in the incidence of leukaemia and cataracts
among those who received higher doses, there is no evidence of health effects that can be attributed to radiation exposure;
- The contamination of milk with 131I, for which prompt countermeasures were lacking, resulted in large doses to the thyroids of members of the general
public; this led to a substantial fraction of the more than 6,000 thyroid cancers observed to date among people who were children or adolescents at the time of the accident (by 2005, 15 cases had proved fatal);
- To date, there has been no persuasive evidence of any other health effect in the general population that can be attributed to radiation exposure.
If I understood correctly only 4 died from the Chernobyl radiation and according to estimates a maximum of 4K will die from the related radiation (cancer, etc..). I would expect that the type and rate of exposure would be a major factor in the lethality. In any event, those brave souls are to be commended for their heroism and dedication to both their company and their countrymen!
Frankly, I have not heard of the figures pixies mentioned here. The press reports coming from Japan say that so far nobody has died of radiation in Fukushima Nuclear Power Station, after the latest tsunami/quake.
On-site personnel will always be needed. What happens when the comm links go down? What happens when the remote sensors fail? How would you rig a work-around? Robots could do this stuff in the distant future, but for now....
It is sort of like the times when we would be asked to see who could set aside all thoughts of self-preservation and head out on a mission. Most of us would come back, and we would have accomplished the mission. Sometimes the mission is clearly going to save a lot of other folks who can't possibly do what you are going to do.
I sincerely salute those doing this work, I hope "that they all come back".
David Patterson, known for his pioneering research that led to RAID, clusters and more, is part of a team at UC Berkeley that recently made its RISC-V processor architecture an open source hardware offering. We talk with Patterson and one of his colleagues behind the effort about the opportunities they see, what new kinds of designs they hope to enable and what it means for today’s commercial processor giants such as Intel, ARM and Imagination Technologies.