The Fukushima 50 and the Meaning of “Sacrifice”

Image from Pattaya Daily.

Though workers were evacuated again from Fukushima I about 20 hours ago following reports of white smoke, I am troubled by the quickness with which commentators, hungry for heroes in this whole situation, have written the Fukushima workers off as soon-to-be-dead zombies.

Before you get hopped up, let me say this: In no way am I going to argue that these people are in any way not engaged in making great sacrifices. I’m not even arguing that they’re not fully deserving of the cult of the nuclear samurai that has grown up around them.

But I have heard no credible reports that the workers at Fukushima “sacrificed” themselves…with the implication that they are certain to soon be dead, which implies that they are in the “walking ghost” phase of acute radiation sickness. I’m not going to play pro-nuclear-roulette and claim that won’t happen. I’m just going to say that I’ve seen no credible reports of it, and yet I hear that claim repeated and repeated and repeated.

It may be an appealing myth — and it may even be true. But to my mind, it has not been established credibly. To pretend that it has is to misunderstand radiation. It’s also to cast aspersions on the workers’ real sacrifice. What happens “if” they all live? Is that a “miracle”? Or is it proof that the Japanese safety procedures were not as bad as we thought they were? Maybe it could even be taken as proof that the cult was fraudulent from the beginning — which it is not, or at least it shouldn’t be. The fact is, the real sacrifice comes from a shared sacrifice of establishing and evaluating risk, and very brave people taking individual risks when things go wrong.

But if the rest of us think we’re asking the Fukushima 50 to crawl into a melting-down core to save our asses, we’re grossly mis-evaluating the value of infrastructure. Building credible and defensible infrastructure is not about cheering cannon fodder. It’s about respecting the people who make sacrifices to keep the world running.

Japan, as an IAEA state, would be obligated to have already reported acute radiation sickness cases, and based on their own guidelines the workers still cannot be exposed to anything more than 250 mSv, or millisieverts — which is a LOT of radiation, and not a party. It places one at a definite and clearly established elevated risk for cancer. But it sure as hell does not indicate instant death.

The Fukushima 50 were selected from older workers not because they have “less time to lose,” but because the effects of ionizing radiation too low to cause acute radiation sickness are still high enough to cause an established increase in cancer and birth defects. Older workers have less time ot live — which means they are less likely to develop those cancers before they would die otherwise. They’re also past their childbearing years, limiting the likelihood of birth defects. Current limits on workers’ exposure are too low to cause radiation sickness. Are the government and Tepco lying about how exposed the current workers are? I have no idea either way, but if you would like to manufacture scenarios, feel free. But that’s what you’re doing. There’ve been no reports of radiation sickness.

Nonetheless, the talk of the workers’ “sacrifice” continues, to my mind — and I hope you’ll meet me halfway here — turning the workers’ real sacrifice into a soundbite because we love soundbites. The implication is that the older workers are being placed in harm’s way so that the younger workers can live on into the brave future. It might be appealing (though I, personally, find such a proposal ghoulish — and those who take pleasure in it more so). This is a soundbite that is being grabbed by those who love drama, and the lack of credibility in the “sources” won’t change the fact that plenty of people will believe it to be true. For how long will the older workers be said to have been selected because they have less ot lose?

The 31 workers who died of radiation poisoning at Chernobyl did sacrifice themselves. They placed themselves in the path of certain death, as did those at Chernobyl who did not die. Chernobyl was a different plant, a different country, a different decade.

The Fukushima 50 are to be admired. These workers have balls of brass. They are brave as hell. They are heroes to the Japanese nation, and should be considered heroes to the world. But claiming they “sacrificed” themselves is slamming the coffin door shut before any of the real information is out there. It’s disrespectful to them, and disrespectful to the man, many firefighters and rescue workers who sacrifice themselves every day all over the world because that’s their jobs.

Just because radiation is shiny and battling a meltdown seems more ghoulish to us, that doesn’t mean it needs to be dramatized any more than it already is. The situation is dramatic enough, and the workers are doing a tough enough job. They are taking enormous risk to benefit the rest of us, like the American rescue workers who were sacrificed on 9/11. But speaking of “greater” and “lesser” sacrifices misses the point of any kind of service. These workers are brave, brave, brave, and they are to be admired. You should tell their kids about them and hold them up at examples of what it means to agree to do a thing, and then actually do it even when it turns out to be a real bitch.

But we should let them be heroes without writing them off as corpses.

The statement about “sacrifice” was made repeatedly in the media, but tended not to show up in print. Then it was repeated again and again, primarily in online forums, like UFO/Conspiracy site GodLikeProductions, which is coming up in the top three on numerous Google searches related to Fukushima. Those cats have some serious Google mojo.

Also showing up at the very top of the Google searches for “fukushima sacrifice” are, which uses the observation that “officials denied the workers are on a kamikaze mission” to create a sort of confirm-by-denying flavor of not-quite-a-lie. It also strikes me as mildly racist to equate the kamikazes of World War II, who were “sacrifices” to a desperate collision of Imperial constructs, with trained workers in a highly developed and complex society. These people are trained professionals, and they are to be admired without being turned into martyrs before their time.

With all of these, writers used the “officials deny” claim as a cover for making their own assertions, which are not then supported by the evidence.

Even worse were the opportunistic squatters at ExplosionJapan, which was registered on 12 March 2011. They used explicit descriptions of acute radiation sickness to terrify and delight, and as a result they ended up at the very top of relevant Google searches.

In this and other cases, the implication or explicit statement is that the workers have acute radiation sickness. Do they? I don’t know. But there is no credible information to indicate it.

Based on the emergency provisions approved by the Japanese, the workers’ exposure was still, even given the emergency situation, limited to 250 mSv, or millisieverts, which is markedly less than the 1,000 mSv that causes acute radiation poisoning. It is higher than the 100 mSv dose that is the lowest established carcinogenic dose.

However, that does not mean they workers will be dying of cancer any time soon. They might, but we don’t know for sure. There are too few test cases to be sure.

These workers agreed to assume a very large risk, and frankly that should be enough. If drama queens the world over want to bump them off because it’s more intoxicating to have brave martyrs than live heroes, fine. But it’s not supported by evidence currently available. Please prove me wrong in the comments if you wish — links are appreciated.

In the meanwhile, I wish everyone would quit slamming the coffin lid.

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