This battle is not about self-preservation, as admirable as that might be. By staying to face the radiation and fire at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station following the devastation of the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan, the 50 or so workers may have already condemned themselves to a painfully shortened life span. They knew that going in.
And yet they stay, working in near-total darkness, pumping seawater onto exposed nuclear fuel in hopes that they can prevent a meltdown that would spew thousands of tons of radioactive material into the air, endangering the health and well-being of millions of people.
Their task sounds like something out of a sci-fi thriller. According to The New York Times, “they crawl through labyrinths of equipment in utter darkness pierced only by their flashlights, listening for periodic explosions as hydrogen gas escaping from crippled reactors ignites on contact with air.
“They breathe through uncomfortable respirators or carry heavy oxygen tanks on their backs. They wear white, full-body jump suits with snug-fitting hoods that provide scant protection from the invisible radiation sleeting through their bodies.”
Like Oscar said in “Armageddon”: “Scariest environment imaginable. That’s all you gotta say. Scariest environment imaginable.”
And yet they stay.
According to news reports, some of the 50 workers volunteered to remain behind to man the fire pumps with which they are spraying seawater on the exposed fuel. Others were assigned to stay as part of the nuclear facility’s established crisis management procedure.
“It’s part of the job, part of the training,” an American nuclear power plant operator told the Associated Press. “Nobody makes a secret of the possible dangers involved with working at a place like this. If there’s a problem, you don’t call somebody in to fix it. It’s our problem. We’re the only ones who can fix it. That’s just what we do.”
And so they stay.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never really thought of nuclear power plant workers as “guardians at the gate” – those whose jobs may at any time place them in a position to protect us, perhaps at the peril of their own lives. Truth be told, I haven’t thought about them much at all. My only impressions of nuclear power plants come from scant recollections of Chernobyl and Three-Mile Island, and the fictionalized interpretations of “The China Syndrome” and “The Simpsons.” None of that prepared me for the heroic image that now comes to light as unknown, unseen technicians knowingly put themselves directly in harm’s way in a herculean effort to secure the safety of millions of people they don’t even know.
It makes me wonder how many others are out there, dutifully performing daily acts of courage and bravery in our behalf – acts that we don’t really appreciate until extraordinary circumstances put them in the spotlight. We’ve spoken before of teachers, police officers, firefighters and the men and women who serve in our armed forces. These are obviously guardians at the gate. But what about the electricians who climb power poles to restore power in the middle of a raging storm? Or the sewer workers who deal with materials no one else wants to deal with? Or the pilots, engineers and bus drivers who get us where we need to be— almost always safe and sound? In every case they brave risks in our behalf, and are trained to respond to unknown possibilities when they arise. For them, it isn’t a matter of courage— it’s standard operating procedure. They are truly guardians at the gate because they have chosen to stand a post there.
And because they stay.