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Fukushima’s Nuclear Martyrdom and Occupational Hazards of the Atomic Age

While local residents and staff fled the widening danger zone surrounding the crippled reactors, the anonymous Fukushima worker uttered words that could brand him one of the first martyrs of Japan's monumental triple-catastrophe. He reportedly told an official that he “was not afraid to die, that that was his job.”Screening for radiation exposure in Fukushima prefecture. (Omiuri Shimbuna/AFP/Getty Images)

Like concrete effigies of the atomic age, the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Northeast Japan have burned, exploded and admitted toxic smoke into the air for days. The 50 or so workers who remained at the site, according to various news reports, struggled to hold the line between their country and absolute catastrophe, streaming seawater through emergency fire pumps to contain the burning, hoping to curb the apparent leakage of radioactive material into the atmosphere from the damaged reactors.

On Wednesday we heard that the workers had pulled out due to safety concerns. But new reports from the BBC and other sources indicate the workers “were later allowed to return to the facility” and remain, in the words of a top official, “on standby” though their activities are limited by alarm over escalating “radiation risk.”

So far, authorities have deployed doublespeak to pacify the public and simultaneously demonstrate concern for workers, as reported in the New York Times:

The workers 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 change means that workers can now remain on site longer, the ministry said. “It would be unthinkable to raise it further than that, considering the health of the workers,” the health minister, Yoko Komiyama, said at a news conference. There was also a suggestion on Wednesday that more workers may be brought to help save the power station.

It's unclear what is so magical about the newly designated “safe” threshold of 250 millisieverts. What is clear is that Japanese officials have admitted rewriting occupational safety regulations in order to deal with a massive environmental health calamity. Were the Fukushima workers volunteers or conscripts? In any case, the safety parameters may be moot at this point. According to AFP, “Levels of 400 millisieverts per hour had been recorded near the No. 4 reactor.”

We don't know yet, and may never know, the full extent of the damage; the confused official reports suggest concentrically expanding rings of chaos, which may accelerate if another tremor strikes or another reactor explodes, or more fire eats into an endangered containment vessel.

Certainly, public wariness surrounding nuclear energy has sharpened in the wake of Three Mile Island's haunting lessons, and the monstrous Chernobyl crisis and its forgotten army of “liquidators.” And to its credit, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has sought to strengthen whistleblower protections for nuclear workers. But the specter of a meltdown still looms, a terrifying and perversely fascinating phenomenon for American observers who, like the Japanese, are historically entangled with nuclear power's managed destruction.

The latest chapter in that narrative is being written by the heroic "Fukushima 50." The tragedy has unfolded as a grossly amplified version of everyday risks braved every day by nuclear industry workers. According to the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, research over the years has documented substantial risks associated with even routine occupational exposures. An England-based study from the early 1990s found a “287% increase in cancer incidence in children of nuclear workers who received internal radiation.” Another U.K. study found a “250% increase in all cancers among atomic workers.”

Despite the industry's well-oiled campaign to promote nuclear power's supposed safety, environmental and economic benefits, Mary Olson of NIRS told In These Times that observers should keep in mind that “nuclear reactors are
INHERENTLY dangerous. Every minute of every day at every nuclear reactor
on earth there is the potential for what is happening... at Fukushima right now.”

The irony Japan's nuclear life cycle—from a casualty of the A-bomb to a casualty of industrial disaster—is inevitable in a world that meshes "peaceful" and combative uses of nuclear power, particularly in regions like the Middle East, where civilian and military nuclear ambitions mix on a single spectrum of nihilistic potential.

Bombed-out Japan in 1945 and meltdown Japan in 2011 invite chilling comparisons. At Huffington Post, Marvin Resnikoff, a senior associate with Radioactive Waste Management Associates, calculated the potential ramifications of radioactive cesium released from a disrupted fuel pool:

Cesium is a semi-volatile material that has been detected in the air downwind of the Fukushima reactors. How many Hiroshima bombs worth of cesium-137 are contained in the fuel pool?

In work for the State of Nevada, we estimated that 10 tons of irradiated (what the industry calls "spent") nuclear fuel was equivalent to 240 times the amount of cesium-137 released by the Hiroshima bomb. … If Unit 4 operated for 35 years and produced 30 tons of irradiated fuel per year... then each fuel pool could contain on the order of 24,000 times the amount of cesium-137 produced by the Hiroshima bomb, if all the produced irradiated fuel remains in the fuel pool.

The politically influential U.S. nuclear industry isn't known for its foresight nor its hindsight, particularly where speculative profits are concerned. But now, a single massive natural calamity has set in motion a man-made disaster with a ripple effect that reaches straight into America's backyard. On the eve of the crisis in Japan, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission blessed the rickety Vermont Yankee power plant with a license renewal, over the opposition of state legislators. The facility was built on the same model as the Fukushima plant, GE Mark 1.

In fact,  23 Fukushima dopplegangers are scattered across the country, and have racked up complaints about design flaws and safety problems dating back to the 1970s.

Nevertheless Energy Secretary Steven Chu has skirted the question of whether it's time for the U.S. to reassess its interest in expanding nuclear energy production as an “alternative” to fossil fuels. It seems that in both war and peace, amidst mounting evidence of unconscionable risks, the political establishment's faith in the mythology of nuclear power remains unshakeable.

Now, the earth itself has shaken Japan to the core, leaving just one thing holding steady amid Fukushima's ruins: the lonely, courageous voice of the worker who stayed behind.

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