March 17, 2011 -- There was an outpouring of concern and prayers today for the "Fukushmima 50," the band of volunteer workers who have stayed behind at Japan's crippled nuclear reactors to try prevent a catastrophe for the country.
"My dad went to the Nuclear Plant. I never heard my mother cry so hard. People at the plant are struggling, sacrificing themselves to protect you. Please dad come back alive," read a tweet by Twitter user @nekkonekonyaa.
"My husband is working knowing he could be radiated," said one woman. He told her via email, "Please continue to live well. I cannot be home for awhile."
An email from the daughter of a Fukushima 50 volunteered was shared on national television and said, "My father is still working at the plant -- they are running out of food…we think conditions are really tough. He says he's accepted his fate…much like a death sentence…"
The nearly 200 workers are rotated in and out of the danger zone in groups of 50, taking turns eating and sleeping in a decontaminated area about the size of an average living room.
"They are probably drinking cold water and eating military style packages," said Michael Friedlander, who worked in crisis management at similar American nuclear plants. "It's cold, it's dark, and you're doing that while trying to make sure you're not contaminating yourself while you're eating."
Their mission is called "feed and bleed." They feed seawater onto the reactor to keep it cool, while steam bleeds away the heat.
These workers are aware that their lives are on the line, but they're equally aware of what is at stake.
"I can tell you with 100 percent certainty they are absolutely committed to doing whatever is humanly necessary to make these plants in safe condition, even at the risk of their own lives," said Friedlander.
Helicopter pilots are also risking their health, flying into high radiation levels to dump cooling water on the reactors and give back up to the emergency workers in the plant.
But what will really help the workers is a new power line, which one nuclear expert called the "white knight" these men are waiting for.
Fukushima 50 Are the Heroes of Japan
A 27-year-old woman whose Twitter name is @NamicoAoto tweeted earlier this week that her father had volunteered for Fukushima duty.
"I heard that he volunteered even though he will be retiring in just half a year and I my eyes are filling up with tears... At home, he doesn't seem like someone who could handle big jobs...but today, I was really proud of him. And I pray for his safe return," she wrote.
An admirer of the Fukushima crew tweeted, "Whatever's the closest int'l equivalent to the Medal of Honor - Nobel Peace Prize? -- The Fukushima 50 deserve that, and more," he wrote.
They are working as temperatures at the plants soar to nerve menacing levels, radiation is leaking, rain and snow may be carrying it down upon them, and a toxic fire burns, likely spewing more radiation into the atmosphere.
There is little information about who actually stayed behind, but nuclear experts say the skeleton crew is likely made up not of managers, but of technicians, men who have the schematics of the plant in their head and can fix pipes and unclog vents.
They've gone into battle, crawling at times through dark mazes, armed with flashlights and radiation detectors, wearing full body hazmat suits and breathing through cumbersome oxygen tanks.
Potentially deadly doses of radiation surround them as they work, and their suits do little to prevent radiation from seeping into their bodies.
Radiation sickness sets in after exposure to 1,000 milliseiverts (mSv) of radiation at once.
It's not clear what doses of radiation these men are absorbing, but American and Japanese regulations on radiation exposure are similar: both countries have a total dose of 50 mSv that workers are allowed to be exposed to in one year. But in an emergency situation, workers are allowed to exceed that value. According to the NHK, the Japanese raised the maximum dose allowed to 100 mSv for the Fukushima 50, and on Tuesday raised the number to 500 mSv -- the international value for the maximum allowed dose in a state of emergency.
"That is amazing, but I guess they have a major problem on their hands," said Dr. Eric Hall, a nuclear researcher at Columbia University in New York City.
Despite the massive amounts of radiation they are facing, not all experts believe the radiation levels in the Fukushima Daiichi complex will be fatal.
"These guys are not necessarily laying down their lives for their country and friends. We have a good understanding of what we can actually expose ourselves to. NHK said this morning that the workers are allowed to go in for a very short period of time, make an adjustment on a fuel generator or a pump or a valve, maybe take some data from a gage, and then they go back out," said Jere Jenkins, the director of Radiation Laboratories at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.
Lethal Risks for Fukushima 50
"You've got a limited amount of expertise on those units. If your workforce is 1,000 people, you don't want to start wiping out those people because you're going to lose your experts. I know 'experts' are saying these people are charging into their death, but that's not right," added Jenkins.
While radiation-induced cancers are a serious worry for those exposed to high doses of radiation, they usually take at least a few years to set in.
"You may see an incidence of cancer 30 years down the road. Cataracts can set in in 30 to 40 years," said Jenkins.
"Leukemia showed up within a few years in the atomic bomb survivors, but solid cancers did not appear until 10 years and continue [to show up] to this day," said Hall.
The crews are not necessarily made up of strong young men. Emergency nuclear scenarios suggest asking older retirees to volunteer, not because they're more expendable, or even because they're more skilled, but because even if they're exposed to massive amounts of radiation, history has shown they would die of old age before they die of radiation induced cancers, which can take decades to develop.
"No one is sacrificing themselves. Encouraging older workers is based on the idea that they are past their reproductive life, not on the basis of cancer risk," said Hall. "It was common practice years ago when radium was used in hospitals to have 'older' workers as radium custodians... [because they are] past their reproductive years."