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Update on the “Fukushima 50” March 19, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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The Guardian writes,

… plant workers, emergency services personnel and scientists have been battling for the past week to restore the pumping of water to the Fukushima nuclear plant and to prevent a meltdown at one of the reactors. A team of about 300 workers – wearing masks, goggles and protective suits sealed with duct tape and known as the Fukushima 50 because they work in shifts of 50-strong groups – have captured the attention of the Japanese who have taken heart from the toil inside the wrecked atom plant. “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.

Little is known about this band of heroes, except for the few whose relatives have spoken to the Japanese media. One woman said that her father, who had worked for an electricity company for 40 years and who was due to retire in September, had volunteered. “I feel it’s my mission to help,” he told his daughter.

On Wednesday, the government raised the cumulative legal limit of radiation that the Fukushima workers could be exposed to from 100 to 250 millisieverts. That is more than 12 times the annual legal limit for workers dealing with radiation under British law. Each team works as fast as possible for the briefest of periods. The pilots of the helicopters used to “water-bomb” the plant have been restricted to missions lasting less than 40 minutes.

Nevertheless, the workers have not only managed to link a power cable to one of the plant’s reactors, No 2, but they have also connected diesel generators to the No 5 and No 6 reactors, which have so far not suffered serious damage. “If they are successful in getting the cooling infrastructure up and running, that will be a significant step forward in establishing stability,” said Eric Moore, a nuclear power expert at US-based FocalPoint Consulting Group. However, the government has conceded that it was too slow in dealing with the crisis at Fukushima. Chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano said that “in hindsight, we could have moved a little quicker in assessing the situation and co-ordinating all that information, and provided it faster”.

The fires at Fukushima have also triggered serious criticism of the plant’s design. The decision to place storage tanks close to reactors has been pinpointed as a key design error. When those reactors caught fire, they quickly triggered reactions in the storage tanks which themselves caught fire, and so the fires spread.

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