TOKYO (Reuters) - Far from the camera crews, crawling through the radioactive wreckage of a nuclear power plant, a faceless battalion is taking on the most dangerous job in Japan, if not the world.
About 300 workers are toiling in Tokyo Electric Power’s earthquake-smashed plant, wearing masks, goggles and protective suits whose seams are sealed off with duct tape to prevent radioactive particles from creeping in.
They are racing against time to restore power and cooling systems to the six reactors at Fukushima Daiichi and try to avert the biggest nuclear catastrophe since Chernobyl in 1986.
“My eyes well with tears at the thought of the work they are doing,” Kazuya Aoki, a safety official at Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, told Reuters. “We all just want to support them, and help them do a solid job.”
Hit by explosions and fires, reactors at the plant, 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo, are leaking, and officials can’t confirm if cooling water remains in pools containing spent fuel rods. If not, they can burn and release toxic radiation.
Safety agency and company officials won’t say more about who the workers are or what specifically they are doing.
It has not been made public how many of the team of 304 work for Tokyo Electric and how many for other organizations such as outside contractors or the military. No one is saying whether they volunteered or were ordered to take on the task.
“It’s their job. I think they’re doing it of their own free will,” said Masato Furusawa, a 47-year-old Tokyo construction worker. “They don’t need convincing; it’s something they have to do.”
That reflects the Japanese value of unquestioningly following the orders of a leader, a master or an employer.
Whether a 17th-century swordsman in the service of a local warlord or a 21st-century turbine engineer, Japanese are brought up with a strong sense of fealty and duty.
It’s a spirit that has made some Japanese make comparisons between the nuclear workers forging into the reactors and Japan’s “tokkoutai” of World War II -- the military special attack forces including kamikaze pilots.
Safety officials are doing their best to avoid any such outcome, of course.
Besides their protective gear, Tokyo Electric is limiting the amount of radiation to which the workers can be exposed.
The average dose for a nuclear plant worker is 50 millisieverts over five years. Tokyo Electric said on Friday it had raised the limit for the emergency work to 100 millisieverts an hour, subject to an overall maximum of 250 millisieverts a year.
One hundred millisieverts is about 10 times the amount of radiation one would receive from living on a beach in Brazil for a year, according to Japan’s nuclear safety agency. A full-body CT scan gives a radiation dose of 20-30 millisieverts.
“Obviously there is some increased risk with increased dosage, but it is still within limits that should not have a real effect,” said Tony Irwin, a former nuclear plant manager in Australia.
Typically the workers will carry radiation monitors to make sure they are not over-exposed and indicate when their allotted limit has been reached, Irwin said.
“You come out and shower with the suit on to get loose contamination off, take off the suit and then shower again to get it off your skin,” he said. “They monitor all over the body to make sure there is nothing on the body before they leave.”
Japanese media have not reported on the identities or duties of the workers going into the stricken reactors, but the news agency Jiji told Wednesday of a 59-year-old nuclear power worker from Shimane prefecture in western Japan who volunteered for the hazardous duty.
The unnamed man, who works at a nuclear plant for a regional electric company, is six months away from retirement, Jiji said.
“The future of nuclear power operations depends on how this is handled,” he told his daughter, according to the report. “I want to go there with a sense of mission.”
The Japanese public has not paid much attention to those who answered this call, given all the other distractions: more than 15,000 dead or missing, millions without running water or power, train stoppages, food shortages and panic buying.
“It’s their work, so they have to do it,” said Daisuke Nakao, 40, who was taking a cigarette break in Hibiya Park near trees donated by Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate prefectures, which were hardest hit by last week’s calamities.
“They’re not doing it for their country, and they’re not doing it for free -- that’s why we pay electricity fees and taxes,” Nakao said.
But there was also a sentiment of honouring strangers working for a greater good.
“They are taking such a risk for us, I can only be full of deep gratitude,” said Tokyo resident Kumiko Tanaka, 73, who was taking a walk in the park after lunch.
”I don’t know who they are, but I‘m praying for them,“ she said. ”I think they feel a larger duty, that they need to do this for their country.
“When they’re finished, I think they will be heroes.”
Additional reporting by Linda Sieg; Editing by Mark Bendeich and Miral Fahmy