The roughly 50 technicians inside Fukushima's crippled Daiichi nuclear power plant, where Tokyo Electric Power said today a "critical meltdown" could develop, have one of the deadliest jobs in the world right now.
The workers are cut off from the outside world in a stricken plant where even the telephone lines have been disconnected. They have been racing against time since Friday's earthquake and tsunami to prevent serious damage to three reactors and the spread of life-threatening radiation.
"They're like the firefighters who went into the World Trade Center," Francois Perchet, a former nuclear reactor manager now with World Nuclear Association, told AOL News today.
"They're taking action, they're fully engaged and they know they're saving lives. They might need help for trauma later on, but right now they know they're doing the right thing," he said.
But as Japan and the rest the world worry about possible meltdowns and fluctuating radiation levels, the workers are risking their lives amid dangerous hydrogen explosions and fires that have already injured seven of them.
Today, the levels of radiation at the plant, though they have since fallen, measured a dangerous 400 millisieverts.
To put that into perspective, the average annual dose limit for nuclear power plant operators in many countries is just 20 millisieverts, and most don't absorb more than one millisievert in a year, said Jonathan Billowes, a professor of nuclear at the University of Manchester.
Billowes, like many nuclear physicists and nuclear energy experts interviewed by AOL News, has limited data about the exact situation in the Fukushima plant, but he said certain protocols are followed all over the world.
At Fukushima, however, some of the workers are personnel who have probably never been inside a nuclear power plant before. They are the teams in charge of the fire trucks used to pump hoses full of seawater into the reactors to try to cool them and avert a meltdown. The plant's diesel generators were knocked out by the tsunami and caused the reactors' cooling systems to fail.
Both the emergency responders and the plant technicians are working with the help of two or three people thought to still be in the plant's control room, as well as a special operations center relocated off-site.
"I've worked around radiation, and it's scary," Stanton Friedman, a retired nuclear physicist with General Electric, told AOL News today.
"You try to be careful, but it sure isn't easy and it sure isn't fun. These people are working a disaster within a disaster. They got clobbered. First the earthquake, then the tsunami took out their generators. You can be sure they feel a huge sense of responsibility to fix this, but they are in a tough spot. They're professionals, but they're probably terrified too."...MORE