In a country already brimming with stoic courage, this skeleton crew is surely the bravest of the lot. From fragments of information, we can build a picture of their desperate struggle to save their countrymen, and themselves.
They are not just technicians, but also soldiers and firefighters. They are middle-class control room and health personnel and working-class technicians. There are fifty or so at any one time, but the total, with shifts and rotations, may be as many as 180. The odds against them are great, and growing.
"It doesn’t look good at all," says Matt Tuck, a 22-year veteran of the British nuclear industry who is now business director of Matom, a consultancy specialising in nuclear plant operation and emergency management. "Fifty is a very small number, given that there are six reactors. They are at pretty serious risk."
Last night, the Japanese government raised the legal limit of radiation the Fifty could be exposed to by 150 per cent, from 100 to 250 millisieverts, more than twelve times the British legal dose for radiation staff.
The Fifty themselves have been silent. They have higher priorities than media interviews. But they appear to be under no illusions about the gravity of their position. A control room technician at the plant told a colleague who has been evacuated that he was perfectly prepared to die. It was, he said, his job.
The wife of another of the Fifty, speaking on Japanese television last night, said her husband had not been able to talk to her since the disaster, but had managed to send an email. "His replies indicated a serious situation," she said. "He told me to take care of myself because he wouldn’t be home for a while."
The terror of their experience is clear. Danny Eudy, from Texas, was one of a number of American technicians working at the plant when the earthquake struck. "He was in shock when he called," said his wife, Janie. "He said everything was falling from the ceiling. He walked through so much glass that his feet were cut." Then came the tsunami, carrying away homes and vehicles and, crucially, destroying the pumps that kept the radioactive fuel rods cool.
After backup systems also failed, the workforce, at first about its normal strength of 1,800, fought to maintain cooling by pumping seawater. This is being done by fire engines, their hoses jerry-rigged into the plant’s coolant system. But when a series of explosions rocked successive reactors, and even seawater cooling started to fail, the vast majority of the workforce was pulled out.
Five workers have already died since the quake and 22 more have been injured, while two are missing. One worker was admitted to hospital after grasping his chest and finding himself unable to stand, and another needed treatment after receiving a blast of radiation near a damaged reactor.
The remaining workers are now frantically trying to bring multiple crises under control. They are building a temporary road for the fire trucks to reach perhaps the biggest problem of all, an overheating spent fuel pool at reactor four. The plant’s narrow corridors and the need to work for only short periods because of the intense radiation are hampering efforts.
Tepco, the plant’s operator, has refused to say how the Fifty were chosen, or what choice they themselves had in the matter. At Chernobyl – where 28 plant workers died of radiation poisoning within months, including 19 whose skin fell off – it emerged many were not told about the risks. Japan’s defence ministry has already made the same complaint on behalf of some of its soldiers, involved in emergency operations on the site.
But for the professional nuclear technicians, this is a scenario that must have been played out in a thousand canteen conversations. "They will be wearing full protective gear the whole time," said Mr Tuck. "It doesn’t protect against everything, but you can work for several hours in that. You would also dose-manage to have very short potential exposures, as short as a few minutes.
"If three guys have got to do an operation on a pipe, say, you might only have one of them using the spanner at any one time and the others taking it in turns to hang back."
The Fifty were pulled out for 45 minutes yesterday, retreating 500 metres after radiation spiked to new highs. Their final evacuation would signal that the authorities have given up.
Ultimately, however, if other people’s lives can be saved by sacrificing theirs, the Fifty will, says Mr Tuck, be asked to pay the price. "Would the authorities make that decision? I think they probably would," he said.
That choice might be the same in any country, and could well still be avoided. But in Japan, with its culture steeped in memories of noble self-sacrifice, the "Fukushima Samurai" are already starting to become pre-emptive folk heroes. In a post on Mixi, the Japanese social networking site, Michiko Otsuki, an evacuated fellow worker at a different Fukushima nuclear plant, lionised them as "fighting without running away … working to protect everyone’s lives in exchange for their own".
Even Naoto Kan, the prime minister, has told the crew: "You are the only ones who can resolve the crisis. Retreat is unthinkable." – The Telegraph