— Is it right to ask the few to sacrifice greatly to help the rest? When the reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear facilities began to melt down, the executives at Tokyo Electric Company had to make this request. More recently, Japanese government officials have had to face this dilemma again as they sought volunteers to maintain fire hoses, connect power cables and restore generators in the face of fires, explosions and radiation.
When is it right to ask for volunteers to make the ultimate sacrifice? And when companies or government officials do — what is owed to heroes for their bravery? When asking volunteers to risk death, disability or a shortened lifespan, the stakes must be high. They surely are in the Fukushima prefecture. But if it is right to ask volunteers in Japan or anywhere to face grave risks, then surely they are owed speedy compensation and assistance if that risk becomes reality.
Unless the reactors and storage facilities at the plant are brought under control, a worst-case scenario means extremely hot, melting fuel rods coming in contact with water remaining in the cooling pool in the bottom of a reactor causing a steam explosion. The containment vessels that house the rods, probably already weakened by the gigantic earthquake, aftershocks and other prior smaller explosions, would not be unable to withstand the pressure from a large explosion. If that happened, a large amount of radioactive material would be released into the atmosphere.
Most of the radiation would stay local. A complete meltdown of just one reactor would mean serious contamination of the surrounding area for at least one hundred miles making it uninhabitable for decades. And, depending on weather conditions, radiation could drift toward other parts of Japan or beyond, contaminating crops, sealife and people.
Avoiding this grim scenario has depended on the courage of the "Fukushima 50," the band of volunteer workers who chose to stay behind at the crippled nuclear, and as a consequence are being exposed to high levels of radiation.
Efforts are being made to lesson the danger to workers by using protective equipment. They are also being rotated in and out. It is really a group of about 200 heroes that are battling, 50 at a time, to prevent the worst in the damaged reactors.
Still that may not be enough to prevent harm. Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan has praised the worker-heroes saying on Wednesday, “Those with the (Tokyo Electric Power Co) and related entities are working to pour water, making their best effort even at this moment, without even thinking twice about the danger.”
But the danger these heroes face is very real. The permissible cumulative radiation exposure has already been doubled to extend the time they can legally spend in the reactor. Emissions have risen since the plant was rocked by the March 11 quake. An hour’s exposure in some areas equates to half the annual maximum permissible level. Some workers have had exposures of 10 to 25 hours. Radiation reached 400 millisieverts per hour on March 15 at the plant’s No. 3 reactor. The exposure limit for a nuclear industry employee is 20 millisieverts a year, according to the World Nuclear Association.
The worst case for those who face the horror of a melting core is Chernobyl. Of 600 workers present when the Chernobyl accident and fireball occurred in 1986, 134 developed radiation sickness, and 28 of those died within four months. Many of the rest have battled severe health problems. Most of those will die prematurely as a result of their heroism.
Few would argue that, outside of war, anyone can be ordered to face certain death. Requesting volunteers to face great risk is ethically more understandable. To do so, the danger must be great and every effort must be made to minimize risk. But those who issue the orders have another duty if they request sacrifice from a few to help the many — to be prepared for the consequences.
Many brave men and women went into the hell of the collapsed Twin Towers after 9/11. Years later, they developed serious physical ailments due to their bravery. Hundreds submitted claims to the city and other agencies, but for years and years got no response. Does that fate await today’s heroes in Japan? It should not.
There should be an international agreement that heroes who stay at their posts during calamities, who walk into collapsing buildings or stay on to staunch the risk of a melting nuclear reactor, can expect health care, compensation and assistance. We can justly ask a few brave souls to volunteer to help the rest of us. But, to the extent possible, the price of heroism ought to quickly be paid in full.