Tue, Mar 22, 2011 - Page 14 News List

Elite Japan nuclear workers race to stop meltdown
福島勇士 用生命對抗核災

Photo of steam rising from the number three reactor of Fukushima Dai-Chi power plant in Okumamachi, Fukushima Prefecture is shown on Thursday.
福島縣福島第一核能發電廠三號反應爐 ,上週四冒出蒸氣。

Photo: EPA

The 180 emergency workers at Japan’s crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power complex are emerging as public heroes in the wake of a disaster spawned by an earthquake and a tsunami.

“I don’t know any other way to say it, but this is like suicide fighters in a war,” said Keiichi Nakagawa, associate professor of the Department of Radiology at the University of Tokyo Hospital.

Small teams of the still-anonymous emergency workers rush in and out for 10 to 15 minutes at a time to pump sea water into the plant’s overheated reactors, monitor them and clear debris from explosions. Any longer would make their exposure to radioactivity too great.

Even at normal times, workers wear coveralls, full-face masks with filters, helmets and double-layer gloves when they enter areas with a risk of radiation exposure. Some of them carry oxygen tanks so they don’t have to inhale any radioactive particles into their lungs.

The highest reading among various locations that had to be accessed by the workers hit 600 millisieverts, equal to several years of the daily exposure limit, according to statistics released by Tokyo Electric Power Company.

Millisieverts (msvs) measure exposure to radiation, which can cause cancer and birth defects. Severe exposure can cause burns and radiation sickness — nausea and vomiting and harm to blood cells.

Tony Irwin, an Australian-based nuclear consultant, said the normal dose for a radiation worker is 20 msvs a year, averaged over five years, with a maximum of 50 millisieverts in any one year.

“So they would be trying to rotate people to make sure they’re within that limit. Now many countries have an emergency limit of 100 msvs a year,” he said. “They’ll wear radiation monitors, so they can see exactly what they’re getting on a real time basis.”


1. clear v.

清除 (qing1 chu2)

例: Look at the mess on your desk, you’ll have to clear it before we can start working.


2. average n.

平均 (ping2 jun1)

例: If we look at his 100 goals averaged out over four seasons, he has scored an average of 25 goals each season.


3. acute adj.

急性的 (ji2 xing4 de5)

例: It is very serious, he is in acute need of medical attention.


Yet on Wednesday, Japan’s Ministry of Health Labor and Welfare raised the maximum legal exposure for nuclear workers to 250 msvs from 100 msvs. It described the move as “unavoidable due to the circumstances.”

The workers’ challenges last week have included struggling for hours to open a pressure-release valve and allow water to enter the reactors. When a worker left the scene for a short period, the water flow ceased and fuel for pumps bringing up the water ran out.

The workers also have had to walk around the area to measure radioactivity in each place they were supposed to enter, and remove contaminated debris. They also struggle with broken equipment and a lack of electricity.

“The thing I’ve been concerned about right now are the workers. They are at a tremendous risk,” said Don Milton, a doctor who specializes in occupational health at the University of Maryland.

Milton noted reports that some workers have already shown signs of acute radiation sickness. That would be even worse than it sounds because “the sooner it comes on after exposure, the worse it is.”










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