[UPDATE] As of early Wednesday the remaining engineers have been evacuated from the plant and there has been no new information regarding the two missing workers. Check out the full story at our other post here.
Getting details of what is happening at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is a difficult task at the moment. The language barrier, isolation from those inside the plant, and simple conflicting stories leave one a little confused.
However one thing seems to be clear: some 40 to 70 nuclear engineers have not been evacuated from the power plant, choosing instead to stay behind in potentially fatal conditions in an attempt to prevent a nuclear meltdown which could plausibly harm thousands.
Sadly there are already reports suggesting that two of the engineers who have stayed behind are missing, after explosions and fire at the reactors.
A manager on site made the decision after Fukushima Daiichi’s unit 2 reactor suffered an explosion Tuesday to evacuate the staff working in the plant. However around 50 employees – or as many as 70 – have remained behind and subsequently been dubbed the Fukushima 50.
Their job is to pump as much seawater as they can into the reactors to cool down the fuel rods in an effort to ensure they do not overheat. If the containment vessels do overheat, they will melt, allowing the radioactive material inside access to the surrounding environment.
Despite the fact that there appears to be a stalemate at the Daiichi nuclear power plant, the danger for those who have elected to remain behind is high.
David Richardson, a professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina who has studied the long-term health risks for nuclear plant workers, told the BBC that those at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant will receive in one hour the same amount of radiation a US nuclear worker is exposed over their career.
“These workers in a few hours are getting fairly high doses I would say by contemporary standards for worker protection and that’s likely to pose some risks down the line,” Richardson said. “To my knowledge there’s not a good way after exposure of trying to protect somebody from the risks of a subsequent later cancer.”
“You are still breathing this into your lungs, and there is passive absorption in the skin, eyes and mouth and we really do not know what long-term impact that would have,” said Lee Tin-lap, a toxicologist at a Hong Kong university speaking to Reuters. He believes the current levels of radiaion are not immediately dangerous, but that there could be long-term effects.
The radiation levels have been rising and falling over the past few days, and emergency services have already ordered an evacuation of the surrounding 20 kilometres, a total of around 200,000 people. Already officials in Fukushima have announced some 190 people may have been exposed to radiation, eliciting the delivery of around 230,00 iodine tablets to evacuation centres in the area around Fukushima Daiichi and Fukushima Daini as a precautionary measure: ingesting an iodine tablet helps prevent the accumulation of radioactive iodine in the thyroid.