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“We’ll form a suicide squad to do it.”  ~ Masao Yoshida,
Fukushima Daiichi Plant Chief responding to Prime
Minister Nato Kan’s demands to start venting of the
stricken reactors early in the morning of March 12, 2011

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In a week of remembrances about last year’s events at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant it is surprising how little has been said about the Fukushima Fifty. “Fukushima Fifty” was the name the Japanese and international media applied to the group of plant workers and emergency responders who, on the morning of March 15th, stayed behind to man the control systems and the site while the bulk of the plant’s employees were relocated.

In the days following the earthquake, a stunned Japanese nation watched as the bodies of thousands killed by the tsunami washed ashore and the grueling search for the living continued in the earthquake rubble. But for much of the rest of the world, the crisis at the Fukushima reactors became the focus of our attention.

The efforts made by the plant employees and many others in the Japanese nuclear industry were widely reported in the West as acts of desperation, rather than a coordinated attack on the problem. The Fukushima Fifty captured the media’s and the world’s attention as a symbol of the drastic measures required. Who could blame them?  Even Emperor Akihito and Prime Minstier Kan made televised statements lauding them, with Mr. Kan going so far as to say they were “prepared for death.”

We may not be able to fully appreciate cultural differences that drive and motivate the Japanese. In the West, there was a fascination with these nuclear “kamikaze” and we saw them as a shocking sign of how desperate things had become. But for the Japanese, the Fukushima Fifty were a symbol of national resolve. Their willingness to sacrifice to protect the nation during this time of crisis became a source of national pride.

Images of these workers putting themselves in harm’s way brought attention to the inept crisis management by the government. By collectively taking action on the ground and at the scene, the emergency responders symbolized by the Fukushima Fifty became a rallying point for finally bringing the coordinated national and international response needed to bring the situation under control.

To many the Fukushima Fifty were viewed as a symbol of the suicidal extremes required to contain the growing disaster at Fukushima. In truth, none of the workers involved in the rescue operations died from radiation, and more importantly, it appears none are likely to.

A year later, there was hardly a mention of the Fukushima Fifty during the anniversary events. The fact that none of the Fukushima Fifty died may explain the absence of stirring tributes to their heroics in the Western media. But this symbolic group played a vital role by spurring changes to the Japanese government’s management of the nuclear disaster. No one died to achieve this and therefore few in the West remember the real role they played.  But the role of the Fukushima Fifty in helping to rally their nation may benefit Japanese society for generations to come.

 

Radiation Dosage Chart (click graphic to open in new window: click again to enlarge to full resolution)

Radiation Dosage Chart