There is nothing remarkable about the Nissan minibus that pulls up in the tsunami-wrecked port of Onahama, Fukushima Prefecture. Nothing, that is, except its 21 passengers, who have come to be seen as heroes around the world.

Three groups of seven men alight from the vehicle, many sporting gray hooded sweat shirts and coffee-brown tracksuit trousers, their unshaven faces looking unnaturally pallid in the late afternoon sun.

These men have seen little sunlight in recent weeks, spending long hours inside the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, where they work in darkness and fear battling to contain its ruined reactors.

They have come to be known as the “Fukushima 50,” though they number in the hundreds, each man working in short, rotating shifts due to the highly irradiated surroundings.

Though considered heroes for risking their lives for a cause that has national and potentially global implications, many look worried and completely shattered.

“It is dark in there, dim at best, and pretty eerie,” said Shizuo Takahashi, 50, who has worked at both the No. 1 and 2 reactors. He was at his home near the plant when the March 11 mega-quake struck, triggering the 10-meter tsunami that knocked out the power cables and backup generators needed to prevent the reactors and spent fuel pools from overheating. “But our mission is to curtail this disaster as soon as possible.”

Worker Eiki Igari, who had been laying cables at the No. 3 reactor for a week to restore power, said he was also scared, but added the mission at hand was driving him on. “All we can do is try our best to make sure things are brought under control as soon as possible,” he said.

Normally required to sleep en masse in freezing conditions on the floors of corridors and meeting rooms at the plant, the 21 men were transported a week and a half ago to Onahama, where they boarded a four-masted training bark for a welcome night’s rest.

The Kaiwo Maru, a National Institute for Sea Training vessel usually docked in Yokohama, was scheduled to sail on a training exercise to Honolulu on March 12 but was requisitioned by the government and instructed to head north, taking with it a full load of food and water to Onahama, 60 km from the plant.

It arrived the day after the quake-tsunami disaster and immediately began providing refuge for the maintenance workers.

The mood aboard the ship is somber, said the Kaiwo Maru’s chief officer, Susumu Toya, adding that after a dinner of curry and rice — a welcome change from the rationed fare of crackers and dried rice at the plant — the men had refused offers of beer.

“Mealtimes are very quiet,” he said. “They seem very concerned, very serious about their work.”

The newspapers spread out on the ship’s dining tables are several days old, although the workers have access to the Internet via two laptop computers. A message written in red on the chalkboard reminds them to hand in any valuables they might have for safekeeping.

As they board the ship, however, all each worker carries is a plastic bag filled with work clothes. Before boarding, they are checked for radiation, one of three examinations they must undergo each time they leave the plant.

The sober mood aboard the Kaiwo Maru reflects the atmosphere at the workplace, said Akira Tamura, who is from Iwate and has worked at reactors 1 and 2.

“We are working on a shift basis, sometimes for one hour at a time, sometimes two,” said Tamura, who was at home in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, when the quake struck, and was immediately dispatched to the plant.

“The radiation level is high so we are not able to make as quick progress as we would like. But we all have a sense of mission to complete the operations, so there is not much talk at the workplace, no shouts of ‘Let’s do it!’ and so on.”

Unable to see their families, workers are reduced to exchanging mails with wives and children, who all express concern.

“I want to see my family. They are worried,” Tamura said.

In addition to the high radiation levels, fires and explosions have prevented them from working more than one or two hours at a time, said another worker charged with laying cables to restore power at the No. 2 reactor, and who asked to remain anonymous. During their breaks, they rest inside a quake-resistant two-story building that was added to the complex last year, he said.

Asked if he was aware that the whole world was getting behind the workers, the group’s leader, Nobuhide Suzuki, said: “It is tense (inside the power plant) and we do feel the weight of responsibility on our shoulders. But we will see this mission through until the very end. Knowing we have the support of so many people helps us to feel we are not alone.”

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