March 16, 2011 Liz Borkowski, MPH 2Comment

The workers remaining at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station are braving extremely risky conditions as they try to avert a nuclear catastrophe. They are working to keep fuel rods – both those inside reactors and in the spent rods stored in ponds – cool enough to avert a Chernobyl-type meltdown, which would spew radioactive particles across the region. The most recent reports state that there are 50 workers remaining at the power station; all others have been evacuated as radiation levels have risen.

The New York Times’ Keith Bradsher and Hiroko Tabuchi describe the workers’ challenges and the damage some have already suffered:

They breathe through uncomfortable respirators or carry heavy oxygen tanks on their backs. They wear white, full-body jumpsuits with snug-fitting hoods that provide scant protection from the invisible radiation sleeting through their bodies.

… Those remaining are being asked to make escalating — and perhaps existential — sacrifices that so far are being only implicitly acknowledged: Japan’s Health Ministry said Tuesday it was raising the legal limit on the amount of radiation to which each worker could be exposed, to 250 millisieverts from 100 millisieverts, five times the maximum exposure permitted for American nuclear plant workers.

… The few details Tokyo Electric has made available paint a dire picture. Five workers have died since the quake and 22 more have been injured for various reasons, while two are missing. One worker was hospitalized after suddenly grasping his chest and finding himself unable to stand, and another needed treatment after receiving a blast of radiation near a damaged reactor. Eleven workers were injured in a hydrogen explosion at reactor No. 3.

Although there are important differences between the Chernobyl facility and this one, the 1986 Ukraine disaster serves as a cautionary tale of how much damage workers can sustain when exposed to too much radiation for too long. Bradsher and Tabuchi write:

Among plant employees and firefighters at Chernobyl, many volunteered to try to tame, and then entomb, the burning reactor — although it is not clear that all were told the truth about the risks. Within three months, 28 of them died from radiation exposure. At least 19 of them were killed by infections that resulted from having large areas of their skin burned off by radiation, according to a recent report by a United Nations scientific committee. And 106 others developed radiation sickness, with nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and dropping blood counts that left them highly vulnerable to infections.

The people who had suffered radiation sickness developed other problems later, according to the report: cataracts, severe scarring from the radiation burns to their skin and an increased number of deaths from leukemia and other blood cancers.

Some of those Chernobyl workers were exposed to levels of radiation far beyond what has been measured to date at Daiichi — especially helicopter pilots who flew through radiation-laden smoke spewing from the reactor to drop fire-extinguishing chemicals on it.

In a separate New York Times article, Henry Fountain delves into the issue of how workers’ radiation exposures can be limited:

Health physicists should gauge the radiation level in the work area, and the workers would normally be told how long they can remain. “There may be a health physicist who will say, You only have an hour or two to do this job,” [consultant Arnold] Gundersen said. Each worker would carry a dosimeter, which measures radiation exposure, “and they’ll be looking at it,” he added. “When it hits a certain number, they should leave.”

… Determining allowable exposure is usually based on three principles: distance, time and shielding. In the Japanese plants, extensive contamination would mean that distance and shielding are not really factors, so the controlling variable is time.

Mr. Gundersen said that when he worked at the Vermont Yankee plant, which is nearly identical to some of the crippled Japanese reactors, he had one maintenance task where the “stay time,” in which workers would be exposed to their yearly limit, was three minutes. He hired local farmers, trained them on a mock-up for two weeks, and then sent them in for their brief stint. “Then I’d send them home for a year,” he said.

In Japan, the plant operators do not have the luxury of time for training. “You need somebody who is familiar with the plant, because you need somebody to do it now,” Mr. Gundersen said.

For Reuters, Pavel Polityuk interviews Andriy Chudinov, one of the few survivng Chernobyl trouble-shooters to arrive on the scene of that 1986 disaster:

“From my shift there was not one of my friends who refused to go. It was a question of duty. We knew it was dangerous but we were brought up differently and we didn’t even think of not going,” Chudinov added.

… On pension now and suffering from a blood condition which he attributes to radiation effects, Chudinov says: “I lost many, very many, friends. I haven’t counted but an awful lot of them are no longer here. I don’t know why I survived. Radiation reacts differently on different people,” he said.

Workers who responded to the Chernobyl meltdown and their families have received tax breaks and enhanced pensions, among other privileges, but Chernobyl “liquidators” who gathered in Kiev earlier this week to protest say the government has reneged on its promises to them. “They canceled our free treatment. They canceled our free medicine. They have thrown us aside and don’t care,” protester Vladimir Danilenko told Retuers.

The workers at the Fukushima plant probably have a good idea of the kinds of risks they’re facing but remain on the job because they’re willing to sacrifice for the health of those who’d suffer in the event of a meltdown. They deserve both generous compensation and enduring gratitude.

2 thoughts on “Workers Brave Radiation to Avert Nuclear Catastrophe

  1. One can only hope that the Japanese, with national health plans and a cultural reverence for age and those who have suffered as a public service, will do better than the Russians.

    I used to work with a guy who was a ‘technician’ at a nuclear plant. They always had a couple on-site 24/7 to handle repairs. Mostly they played pinball, read, watched TV. They would also train on mock-ups, get briefed on jobs and, of course, do the work. At the plant they were known as ‘burnouts’. They made decent money waiting and working. But once their yearly radiation dose was absorbed they made a modest stipend that you could live on only if you really liked Chinese noddles and sardines.

    Good workers, ones that worked fast and did the job right the first time so they stayed on the job longer before they maxed out, made a fair living. Earning and saving part of the year and working part-time once they had taken their dose. My friend lived on the beach, this was back in the 70s when cheap cottages on the beach were common, typically surfed and shot pool for about four months a year waiting for the calender to roll over so he could go back. He sometimes picked up a few hours cashiering at the surf shop, repaired surfboards, taught surfing, and tried to schmooze the rich women. There were many bites but few catches. On what they paid him he had a modest lower-middle class existence and even saved a little money. Not a bad life for a guy in his twenties.

  2. That’s fascinating to hear, Art. Reading about how quickly certain tasks can cause workers to reach the limit for a recommended annual radiation exposure has made me wonder what they do the rest of the year. And in some cases, the exposure might be a once-in-a-lifetime dose.

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