TAGAJO, Japan — In Japan they call them the "Faceless 50." They are the workers from the ravaged Fukushima nuclear plant who stayed to fight the fires and keep the reactors from melting down.
Watching newscasts of the 50 risk everything for the common good, the Japanese see a quiet selflessness — and see themselves.
"We all support them and want them to be successful," said Shinichi, 34, a banker who only gave his first name as he weathered a line to buy gas for company vehicles in Tagajo, about 70 miles north of the battle to save the reactors. "They're probably the 50 hardest-working people in the world right now. But I'd do the same thing."
As the Japanese are tested with disasters beyond their imagining, many see the bravery of the Faceless 50 as the epitome of group responsibility, known as Yamato-damashii, or Japanese spirit. That collective consciousness is almost second nature to the Japanese, Shinichi said, especially in times of crisis.
Time may test that. Authorities have been slow to respond to food and fuel shortages, and the winter weather is miserable. There is widespread grumbling about the broken understanding that the government was ready to handle the aftermath of a severe quake.
The bursts of radiation being released at the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant could mean workers there will have to be quickly rotated out, and some could rapidly reach their annual exposure limit, complicating efforts to contain Japan's continuing nuclear crisis.
"Those are pretty brave people," David Brenner, the director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University Medical Center, said of the workers. "There are going to be some martyrs among them."
Reports on Thursday indicated that at times radiation was intense enough to exceed even Japan's newly raised annual limit in as little as an hour.
The new limit — 250 millisieverts — is five times the allowable exposure in U.S. nuclear plants and 125 times what workers typically receive each year.
That level of exposure raises the chances that workers will eventually die of cancer by 1 percent, according to John Boice, a cancer epidemiologist at Vanderbilt University and radiation safety expert.
The situation becomes more complicated at higher doses, because radiation risk is cumulative. In other words, the risk of dying of cancer rises an extra 1 percent with each additional 250 millisieverts.
There were conflicting reports about the amount of radiation the workers may have received so far.
At one point on Thursday, a level of 400 millisieverts per hour was recorded at the plant. At that rate, a fully exposed worker would have to leave in 37 minutes and 30 seconds and not come back for a year.
The most acute danger would come from a sudden release of radiation from which workers could not escape — an explosion for example. That could cause radiation sickness, a devastating illness that is often fatal.
In the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, the worst nuclear plant accident in history, workers who battled a weeklong fire were exposed to radiation at levels thousands of times higher than the Japanese yearly limit.
At first, people exposed to that much radiation might look normal. In a week, things change drastically.
"People's hair starts to fall out and the burns appear and the bone marrow damage starts," said Dr. Robert Peter Gale, a hematologist who flew to Moscow days after the Chernobyl accident to try to save workers airlifted there. He is scheduled to fly to Japan on Saturday to help with the relief efforts.
In all, 134 Chernobyl emergency workers developed radiation sickness, and 28 of those died within four months, according to the United Nations. Many of the rest have continued to battle health problems.