the faceless 50

From NYT: “A small crew of technicians, braving radiation and fire, became the only people remaining at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station on Tuesday — and perhaps Japan’s last chance of preventing a broader nuclear catastrophe.

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 jumpsuits with snug-fitting hoods that provide scant protection from the invisible radiation sleeting through their bodies.

They are the faceless 50, the unnamed operators who stayed behind. They have volunteered, or been assigned, to pump seawater on dangerously exposed nuclear fuel, already thought to be partly melting and spewing radioactive material, to prevent full meltdowns that could throw thousands of tons of radioactive dust high into the air and imperil millions of their compatriots…

The workers are being asked to make escalating — and perhaps existential — sacrifices that so far are being only implicitly acknowledged: Japan’s Health Ministry said Tuesday that it was raising the legal limit on the amount of radiation exposure to which each worker could be exposed, to 250 millisieverts from 100 millisieverts, five times the maximum exposure permitted for nuclear plant workers in the United States…

The few details Tokyo Electric has made available paint a dire picture. Five workers have died since the earthquake and 22 more have been injured for various reasons, while two are missing. One worker was hospitalized after suddenly grasping his chest and finding himself unable to stand, and another needed treatment after receiving a blast of radiation near a damaged reactor. Eleven workers were injured in a hydrogen explosion at reactor No. 3. Nuclear reactor operators say that their profession is typified by the same kind of esprit de corps found among firefighters and elite military units. Lunchroom conversations at reactors frequently turn to what operators would do in a severe emergency…

Adding to this natural bonding, jobs in Japan confer identity, command loyalty and inspire a particularly fervent kind of dedication. Economic straits have chipped away at the hallowed idea of lifetime employment for many Japanese, but the workplace remains a potent source of community. Mr. Friedlander said that he had no doubt that in an identical accident in the United States, 50 volunteers could be found to stay behind after everyone else evacuated from an extremely hazardous environment. But Japanese are raised to believe that individuals sacrifice for the good of the group…”

The cultural generalization at the end (“Japanese are raised to believe…”) is interesting in that it’s undermined by an earlier line (“…no doubt that in an identical accident in the United States, 50 volunteers could be found to stay behind”).  In any case, these extraordinary individuals deserve a place in our thoughts.


Written by shehzadnadeem

March 16, 2011 at 2:01 am

Posted in current events

7 Responses

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  1. Off-topic for Omar: back when we were trying to list famous sociologists without PhDs, did we mention Paul Lazarsfeld? I don’t think so and he qualifies.

    Sorry I can’t find the original post and claim my prize over there.



    March 16, 2011 at 4:27 am

  2. “famous sociologists without PhDs”

    Edit: without PhDs in social science.



    March 16, 2011 at 6:21 pm

  3. does anyone know of a study on self-sacrificing behavior (as motivated by altruism rather than, say, nationalism or fear)?



    March 16, 2011 at 6:26 pm

  4. I think there is an ASA section in formation on altruism and social solidarity. Perhaps they have a website with some citations for relevant literature?



    March 16, 2011 at 7:01 pm

  5. brayden king

    March 16, 2011 at 7:49 pm

  6. Indeed!



    March 16, 2011 at 9:28 pm

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