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‘Fukushima 50’ risking their lives to try to prevent meltdown

For three desperate days, Michiko Otsuki and her colleagues worked all-out to control the disaster at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. In the midst of the post-earthquake chaos, she watched her co-workers quietly put their lives on the line, doing all they could to stave off a meltdown with little thought for their own safety.

But when she was finally evacuated on Monday, leaving behind a small emergency team, she was surprised to discover that her countrymen didn't seem grateful for these acts of on-the-job heroism. Instead they'd gone on the attack, focusing their rage on Tepco, the plant's owners, for not doing more to prevent the crisis.

Ms. Otsuki decided to speak out and answer complaints that Tepco's employees had shirked their obligations and betrayed their fellow citizens.

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In a series of blog posts on a Japanese social-networking site, she paints a much more heroic picture, describing the determination of exhausted workers who knew better than anyone that they were risking their lives to protect the plant.

"In the midst of the tsunami alarm," she writes, according to the translation made by The Straits Times newspaper, "at 3 a.m. in the night when we couldn't even see where we were going, we carried on working to restore the reactors from where we were, right by the sea, with the realization that this could be certain death."

The extent of the destruction was worse than anyone had anticipated, and at its most dangerous for the employees who stayed on the spot, doing their jobs.

"The machine that cools the reactor is just by the ocean," Ms. Otsuki writes, "and it was wrecked by the tsunami. Everyone worked desperately to try and restore it. Fighting fatigue and empty stomachs, we dragged ourselves back to work. There are many who haven't got in touch with their family members, but are facing the present situation and working hard."

And a Twitter user with the name NamicoAoto talked up her father's heroic call to duty among her friends on the social network. "Tomorrow, my father will be dispatched to the Fukushima nuclear power plant to help out with the crisis," she wrote two days after the quake. "When I heard that my father, who is scheduled to retire in six months, had volunteered to help, I could barely hold back my tears. 'If we act now,' he said, 'we can change the future of the nuclear power plant. I will go there with this mission.'...I have never felt so proud of him."

Reports from the plant, according to a statement from the International Atomic Energy Agency, indicate that 21 people have been injured, 20 have been exposed to excessive radiation and two are missing. Most of the plant's 1,800 employees have been evacuated, and it's not clear how many employees remain as part of the skeleton emergency crew. Though they are now described in Japanese media, with growing admiration, as the Fukushima 50, some estimates put their numbers higher.

High radiation levels have been detected in and around the plant, enough to drive off outside emergency crews that have been trying to bombard the reactors with seawater in order to cool them. The remaining employees inside the plant try to limit their exposure and have to carry out their work in clammy, airtight suits, slowing down their repairs and adding to their fatigue even as the situation at Fukushima worsens.

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"Everyone at the power plant is battling on, without running away," Ms. Otsuki writes, determined to counteract the charges of cowardice. "To all the residents who have been alarmed and worried, I am truly deeply sorry. ...There are people working to protect all of you, even in exchange for their own lives."

She has since shut down her online account because, in her own cryptic words, "it was being used in a way I had not intended it to be." But she is not alone in the growing praise for the workers confronting the disaster. Prime Minister Naoto Kan joined in on the morale building, praising the courage of the Tepco workers "for making their best effort at this moment, without even thinking twice about the danger."

Spouses have been interviewed on Japanese television and asked to repeat the content of e-mail messages from the Fukushima plant. "He told me to look after myself," one woman said, "because he couldn't make it home any time soon."

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