Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Fukushima Fifty

In modern parlance, the word “hero” is meaningless. Whiny idiots use that word to describe everything from sticking to their diets to overcoming minor hurdles to not killing themselves when faced with the slightest moment of self-pity. But there are real heroes in the world, and when we find them, we should take a moment to recognize them. We see this spirit in the Fukushima Fifty.

“The Fukushima Fifty” is the name given by the media to a group of between 50 and 200 Japanese workers who willingly continued working in the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant amidst the world’s second worst nuclear disaster in a desperate attempt to prevent a total meltdown. They are called "Fifty" because they are rotating in shifts of fifty to try to minimize their exposure to the radiation. We don’t know yet who these people are, but they appear to be a mix of regular workers, volunteers from other plants, and retirees. The facility itself has been rocked by fires, explosions and releases of radiation. Right now it’s in the middle of a meltdown, which many experts are calling both “inevitable” and “the worst case scenario.” Nevertheless, these workers continue working despite the high probability that they will die. In fact, many experts are calling it a "suicide mission." And they are doing this to save people they don’t even know. That is true heroism, and it has a long and inspiring history.

In 480 BC, 300 Spartans sacrificed themselves to save the Western World from Xerxes and his army of 100,000 Persians. They knew they would die, but they felt it was worth their lives to protect the things they believed in. In every war since, soldiers have willingly, knowingly sacrificed themselves to save their comrades or protect their countrymen, be it rushing into enemy fire to retrieve a fallen comrade or fighting desperately to hold off the enemy just long enough to allow their comrades and countrymen to escape.

The same is true of disasters. Indeed, it is at times of disaster that we see the best of the human spirit come shining through. Firemen rush into burning buildings and police put themselves into the line of fire to protect the innocent. Adults dive into rivers to save children from being washed away. When the Titanic sank, the male passengers and crew backed up their gallant words by sacrificing themselves so the women and children could escape in the lifeboats -- the band even played on until the very end. During 9/11, firemen and police ran into the Twin Towers, knowing they would likely die so they could save people they’d never met.

During Chernobyl, most of the first responders knew they would die. Not all, but most. Yet, they stayed at their stations trying to save the situation. They died -- many horribly, 19 died when their skin fell off. The helicopter pilots who dropped sand on the burning Chernobyl reactor were told they would die, but they went nevertheless. They all died as well.

The Fukushima Fifty face the same thing. No one knows yet what will happen to them. We don’t know if the radiation will kill them or make them ill or perhaps do nothing. But whatever ultimately happens to them, they have taken a stand. They have walked into this danger, knowing there is a high probability they would die, and they did it for people they don’t even know. That’s heroism at its finest. And make no mistake, they know the risk. Indeed, several have told their families they expect to die.

So remember this the next time some nihilist suggests that humanity is selfish or evil, or lacks redeeming qualities. There is beauty and nobility within the human spirit. It’s just sad that it often takes moments like this for it to come out.


40 comments:

Writer X said...

Yet another perfect example of ordinary, every day people who are always the bravest and most self-sacrificing. These people are incredible.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, I agree completely. Average people are capable of some pretty incredible things and these are the moments that we should hold up as an example of humanity at it's finest. I wish them the best!

FYI, I recommend following the link and reading the article by the Daily Mail. It's got a lot more detail about the whole situation.

AndrewPrice said...

FYI, I just saw that Obama is calling for a safety review of US nuclear power plants. Once again, he's days too late.

T_Rav said...

Andrew, great piece. I really hope the working conditions aren't as lethal as they seem. I don't think--ah, screw that. I know I don't have the courage it would take to do what these people are doing. God bless 'em.

Writer X said...

Thanks, Andrew. I just started reading about these people this morning. It got me a little teary-eyed.

And then the news focused on Obama writing in a diary or something this morning. (Or was it a coloring book?) Total mood-killer.

Anonymous said...

Wow, just wow! God Bless them indeed.

TJ

AndrewPrice said...

T_Rav, Thanks! I think it's incredible what these people are doing, and sadly, if the experts are right, this is likely to be fatal. Even with the suits, apparently, there is just too much radiation.

In terms of having it in you, that's hard to say. Until you've been in that situation, you just never know what you are capable of or how you will really respond. You might surprise yourself?

What really amazes me with the Fifty is the consciousness of the decision. In some instances, people act out of instinct, like when they jump into a river to save someone or when they have only a few seconds to react. But these people had days to think this through and they are still there. That's really inspiring.

AndrewPrice said...

TJ, Let me second that thought. I really hope and pray they come through this!

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, Is there nothing Obama doesn't do wrong?

I know what you mean about getting teary-eyed. When I read some of the e-mails from these people to their families, it's hard not to get emotional when they are saying things like "live a good life" to their families.

LawHawkRFD said...

I hope people will remember this (and the heroes of 9-11) the next time they refer to some dog-killing, woman-abusing, millionaire, foul-mouthed football player as a "sports hero."

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, Agreed. The word "hero" gets thrown around for far too many things it should never be attached to. But these people are the genuine article. It's inspiring.

CrispyRice said...

What a beautiful article, Andrew. And what wonderful people.

sniffle... sniffle...

T_Rav said...

Shame on you, LawHawk! Michael Vick has been through a lot. How would you feel if you had cameras in your face all the time, and having more money than you knew what to do with? I can't think of anything more heroic than getting up each day and living that millionaire life.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Crispy! And yeah, what an amazing group of people! "sniffle sniffle" is right!

AndrewPrice said...

T_Rav, Don't get me started on Mike Vick. That's a guy who did nothing more than commit a heinous crime while living a luxury lifestyle, get caught, lose a few dollars, spend a little time in prison, and then go right back to the luxury lifestyle, as the NFL's PR people fall all over him. They actually gave him an award for "courage." Unbelievable.

Real heroes are these people in Japan, not creatures like Mike Vick.

JG said...

I'll second (or third?) the sentiment: nothing represents the best of humanity better than regular people do what needs to be done just because it needs to be done. Even though we've heard about them, we don't know their names, probably won't remember them two days after we do. And that doesn't factor into their commitment at all. Although I feel I can say with certainty, even if they don't get the notoriety and appreciation they deserve in this world, God will give it to them in the next. God bless them, and the families they are likely going to leave behind.

LawHawkRFD said...

T_Rav: Have you ever considered applying for a job at the New York Times or the Washington Post? LOL

AndrewPrice said...

Well said JG! I'm not even sure what to add to that, except to say that I wholeheartedly agree with every word and I second your thoughts. Nothing is more inspiring than regular people doing what needs to be done to save other people and doing it without regard to fame, fortune or their own safety. It's just incredible. I truly hope this turns out well for them and their families.

Ed said...

Wow! That is both incredibly sad and incredibly inspiring! Thanks for writing this, seriously! :D

T_Rav said...

LawHawk: OW!!! That was just uncalled for!!

AndrewPrice said...

You're welcome Ed. It is truly sad.

BevfromNYC said...

It is because of men like these that I have every faith that the Japanese people will come out of this tragedy whole again.

AndrewPrice said...

I think so too Bev. I think Japan will bounce back very quickly. And I think it's people like this who will drive that. When push comes to shove, the best among us tend to step forward and help set everything right.

Ed said...

Bev & Andrew, I can't imagine a country as strong and organized as Japan won't be able to rebuild very quickly, but I am surprised their disaster response has been so poor up to now.

Andrew, What do you think this means for nuclear power in the US?

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, I think this will kill the nuclear industry, not just here but everywhere. This is pretty much a disaster no matter how you look at it. And the approach they're taking right now, which is to argue "heck, it held up pretty well considering it wasn't designed to withstand a 9.0 earth quake and then having no power," isn't going to make a lot of people happy. So long as people think these things are basically dirty bomb waiting to make any disaster worse, they're finished.

T_Rav said...

Andrew, I'm not sure it will come to that. As pessimistic as people may be about nuclear power right now, we're going to be forced to make a choice: rapidly expand our exploitation of fossil fuels, try to make renewable energy feasible on a large scale, or start relying more on nuclear energy. My belief is that the first option won't happen as long as the Democrats have the power to block it, and unless there are some revolutionary innovations in the field, the costs associated with the second option will turn people off very quickly. So we may see a massive turn towards nuclear power in the near future. I could very well be wrong, but I don't think people's fears about nuclear energy will silence the cries from their pocketbooks for long.

AndrewPrice said...

T_Rav, Anything is possible, but I have my doubts.

Nuclear has never taken off in most countries because it's deeply unpopular (France and Japan being the exceptions) and its opposition goes well beyond just the hippy left. And this incident is only going to make that opposition stronger.

Moreover, nuclear's not at all cheap. They've tried to say the reason it's expensive is because of the regulatory process, but the truth is that it's never worked anywhere without massive government subsidies because it has massive infrastructure costs. Even compared to the "new" fuels, it's pretty expensive.

Moreover, it's facing one huge problem: natural gas. The most likely energy source for the future is natural gas. It's almost as good as oil, but it's cheaper, more abundant, and it's here. Even some Democrats are coming around to natural gas. As natural gas gains a bigger and bigger foothold, nuclear will look a lot less attractive and the need to replace fossil fuels decreases.

To me though, the biggest problem this time is that the nuclear industry has offered no solution. In other words, when Chernobyl happened, they said "crappy Soviet workmanship, we do better." When Three Mile Island happened, they said, "human error, we'll fix that." This time they're saying, "what do you expect? No one plans for that big of a shock." That's not comforting to people to think that if they get hit with a massive earthquake or tidal wave, that they just have to expect their nuclear plant to blow up.

StanH said...

Very inspiring indeed. As an eternal optimist I believe in people, and episodes like this confirm my belief.

Tennessee Jed said...

Very nice post, Andrew. I've always found that people do amazing things when put to the test. We never know what we are capable until the time comes, but I would certainly hope I could do what these people are doing.

I'll be gone over the weekend. Going to Aiken for an aunt's 90th birthday. Catch you folks Monday.

Happy St. Patty's Day, all. I am hoisting a Jamison to you as we speak (write?)

If you haven't seen the last several posts from iowahawk, you need to. His braketology is a masterpiece.

StanH said...

Read: Why I am not worried about Japan’s nuclear reactors – From MIT’s Dr. Josef Oehmen

It’s a brilliant overveiw of the horror going on in Japan, and will eliviate the hysterical nuclear fear being stoked by the press. I know it made me feel better.

Just do a search you will find it.

T_Rav said...

Andrew, maybe. I don't know that much about the costs of nuclear energy; I just assumed it was cheaper than the renewable stuff. And you know what they say about "assume"...

Incidentally, and I have no way of knowing if this is true but thought I'd pass it along, I read a story on AoSHQ yesterday that got me thinking. According to that book "Superfreakonomics," by Michael Levitt or whoever it is, the Japanese require their police force to have a 96% success rate when it comes to solving murders. Obviously this is impossible, so if they've got good leads on a case, the police will pursue it; but if there are no real suspects or hard evidence available, they will push the coroner to rule the victim's death "accidental" or "due to natural causes." The point of this remark was that the Japanese strive for perfection, which is a good thing, but can sometimes take it to the point of being unable to admit failure and as a result cover up anything that might tarnish their reputations--and just as with the police, this might be going on with the spokesmen for the nuclear plant. This might account for the conflicting reports we've been getting about how bad the situation is. (Of course, so would contagious panic and faulty communication/translation.)

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, I'm also an optimist and moments like this really highlight just how great humans can be!

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Jed! I always find it amazing too. I too hope that I could do this if push came to shove. I like to think I could.

Have a nice weekend!

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, I'll check that out because all I've seen from the pro-industry people at this point is "we can't be blamed for a 9.0 earthquake" and "it could have been worse," neither of which are very good arguments.

AndrewPrice said...

T_Rav, That's true about the police, and your point is well taken.

There has been a lot of speculation that the radiation may be worse than the government has admitted because the Japanese government doesn't want to admit failure.

They've got the same issue with the casualty count from the tsunami, which apparently has been underestimated by at least 1/2, and they are being blamed for failing to take care of the victims (apparently there is little food or shelter or information for these people) because the government has refused to admit it needs help.

(FYI, apparently, the police are also good at pinning crimes on foreigners who can then be deported.)

Ed said...

Andrew, I don't have an opinion either way on nuclear power, but I agree with you this will kill any chance at building new plants.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, I think that's the likely result as the public is unlikely to so see any fine distinctions on this. And the fact there isn't a simple "off" switch will be a problem. But we'll see.

AndrewPrice said...

T_Rav, According to the Department of Energy, the cost comparisons for plants entering service in 2016 are estimated as follows ($/megawatthour):

Natural gas -- 83.1
Coal - 100.4
Clean coal - 110.5
Biomass -- 111.0
Hydro -- 119.9
Nuclear -- 123.5
Wind - 149.3
Wind offshore -- 191.1
Solar -- 396.1

Nuclear lobbying groups actually claim their costs are 1/2 that of natural gas, which is absurd on its face.

Anonymous said...

The "Fifty" truly are inspiring as are the others throughout history that have sacrificed without thought of themselves.

As far as the Nuclear industry trying to ease concerns here, I would be very interested in hearing how the cooling system couldn't be supplied with power, at a power plant?? (which from all accounts I have heard is the cause of the current situation) I am certainly not an expert and may be oversimplyfing, but you would certainly think there would some failsafe supply of power to the one system which can prevent a total meltdown.

AndrewPrice said...

Anon, I agree. That doesn't make a lot of sense to me, especially if the consequences of losing power become so dire?

I also think they will need to very carefully explain why there apparently is no "off switch" that can turn these plants off when they get into trouble.

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