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They crawl through the labyrinths of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant, the utter darkness they are working in pierced only by their flashlights, all the while listening out for periodic explosions as hydrogen gas escaping from the crippled reactors ignites on contact with air.

The faceless technicians – who came to be known as the Fukushima 50 – breathe through uncomfortable respirators or carry heavy oxygen tanks on their backs. They wear white, full-body jumpsuits with snug-fitting hoods that provide scant protection from the invisible radiation. They are perhaps Japan‘s last chance of preventing a broader nuclear catastrophe.

Aware that their loved ones were only kilometres from the crippled nuclear facility, these 50 were the only people who remained at the plant. The unnamed operators have volunteered, or been assigned, to pump seawater on dangerously exposed nuclear fuel, already thought to be partly melting and spewing radioactive material, to prevent full meltdowns. The nuclear power industry’s equivalent of frontline soldiers – the sacrifice of these men has earned them the admiration of the Japanese public.

Nuclear reactor operators say their profession is typified by the esprit de corps found among firefighters and elite military units. Earlier this week, hundreds of non-essential personnel were shipped off-site after the blaze, knowing that they were leaving behind dozens of colleagues risking permanent damage to their health. Yesterday, the number of workers in the complex was increased to 180.

These workers are being asked to make escalating sacrifices that so far are being only implicitly acknowledged. On Tuesday, Japan’s Health Ministry raised the legal limit on the amount of radiation which each worker could be exposed to, from 100 to 250 millisieverts. “It would be unthinkable to raise it further, considering the health of the workers,” Health Vice-minister Yoko Komiyama said.

On Tuesday, the workers learned that radiation had hit a harmful level. Readings at the plant reached 400 millisieverts per hour in one spot.

As the day wore on, the Japanese public’s admiration for the anonymous workers began to rapidly contrast with mounting criticism of their employer, Tepco.

The governor of Fukushima reportedly told the Prime Minister that residents were angry and at the breaking point. Tepco officials’ vague answers at an earlier press conference had hit whatever confidence remained in the company. Tepco has a history of covering up safety issues. In 2002, 17 of its reactors were shut down and the firm’s senior management resigned after it admitted to hiding problems and obstructing inspections.