Japanese firemen battle invisible danger

The most difficult thing in a nuclear crisis, the Tokyo fire-fighter said, was the inability to sense where the danger was.

The Tokyo Fire Department's elite rescue team was among those called in to cool down a nuclear plant north of the capital that was badly damaged by the 11 March earthquake and tsunami and was leaking radiation.

"We usually detect dangers, like fire and smoke, with our eyes, ears and nose, and eliminate some of them, if not all," said Yukio Takayama, a leader of the team.

'Very scary'

"At our latest site, we couldn't sense the dangers. It can be very scary if you cannot eliminate dangers for yourselves. As long as you work on the scene, you are constantly in danger, and a sense of fear is with you all the time ... But someone had to do this and that someone was us."

Takayama said he and his men had been tested for radiation exposure after they installed equipment and left the plant and they were all fine.

After the disaster knocked out cooling systems at the Tokyo Electric Power plant in Fukushima, 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo, the government scrambled to send in military personnel and firefighters to hose down the reactors and spent fuel pools.

The devastation

The magnitude 9.0 quake and ensuing tsunami devastated north-eastern Japan and left more than 27,000 people dead or missing.

Radiation was released into the air as the plant operator was forced to vent nuclear containment vessels to reduce high pressure building up inside.

Underlining the risk the damaged nuclear plant poses, three Tokyo Electric employees were injured by radiation on Thursday, and two were taken to hospital with burns, Japan's nuclear safety agency said.

"There were no people for us to help on the site. There were no flames to douse. But I believe having given relief to the Japanese people through our activities was a form of a rescue operation," said Takayama, a 54-year-old father of two daughters and a son.

The plant was littered with rubble after a series of explosions, making running water hoses from the nearby coast to the reactor No.3, their target, difficult and time-consuming.

Threat of punishment

Takayama said he did not know whether the industry minister had threatened to punish rescue workers if they refused to participate in the operation, as reported by some media.

But he added that a final decision in a life-threatening situation like at the Fukushima plant should be left to a leader on the scene.

"We work to fulfill the duties that are given to us. But part of the job of a leader on the scene is to discern what's doable from undoable. You can't give instructions without knowing what's going on the ground."

"As a squad leader I can never tell my men to go in there and die." (Reuters Health/ March 2011) 

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