It's still not clear how many technicians stayed behind after the tsunami to try to prevent a disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station. On Tuesday, 750 emergency workers were evacuated from the plant when radiation levels soared, leaving around 50 volunteers struggling to cool three crippled reactors. Helped by Japanese soldiers and helicopter pilots, they have braved terrible conditions in respirators and white full-body suits, quickly being hailed around the world as the Fukushima 50.
They face extraordinary hazards. Since the quake, five of their colleagues have died, 22 have been injured and two more are missing. On Friday, when the nuclear crisis at Fukushima was upgraded from level four to five, putting it on the same scale as Three Mile Island, it was clear that public anger towards the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), which operates the plant, was tempered by admiration for the volunteers who were battling against the odds to bring the disaster under control. There were reports of technicians crawling through debris in darkness, guided by torches as they listened for further explosions of hydrogen gas. The daughter of one of the men told Japanese television that her father had been told he would "meet his fate" at the plant.
Dramatic pictures of wrecked machinery and plumes of smoke confirm the quiet heroism of the Fukushima 50. Their bravery is all the more impressive when you consider that they must have been conscious of the death toll following the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in 1986, when attempts to control the burning reactor had horrific consequences for emergency workers. Twenty-eight employees and fire-fighters died within three months, at least 19 of them from infections they were exposed to when large areas of their skin were burnt off by radiation. A further 106 developed radiation sickness, helicopter pilots who flew through the smoke to drop fire-extinguishing chemicals proving particularly vulnerable.
The Fukushima crisis is different from Chernobyl, where a faulty reactor design caused an explosion followed by an uncontrolled release of huge quantities of radiation for 10 days. So far, Japanese emergency workers have been exposed to lower but fluctuating levels of radiation, and Friday's upgrading of the incident suggests that Tepco may have underestimated the risk to emergency workers in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami. "You're certainly worried about the health and safety of your family, but you have an obligation to stay at the facility," an American technician who has worked at nuclear power plants told The New York Times, recalling the camaraderie that exists among people who perform dangerous jobs.
Heroism is an overused word in popular culture. Celebrities employ the concept with abandon – pop stars and models witlessly describe their mothers as "my hero" – while the tendency of the tabloid press to apply it to anyone in military uniform threatens to devalue the whole idea. "Our heroes" is a phrase used so often in stories about British troops serving in Afghanistan that it's become something of a joke, creating a verbal deficit when a soldier dies trying to rescue an injured comrade or to defuse a roadside bomb. Genuine acts of heroism are inspirational, with the capacity to create empathy among strangers, as residents of the Wiltshire town of Wootton Bassett have demonstrated with their regular shows of respect for military casualties returning from Afghanistan.
We live in tumultuous times. The first three months of 2011 have seen earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan, a Pacific tsunami followed by a nuclear crisis, and savage repression of popular uprisings in Libya, Bahrain and Yemen. It's hardly to be wondered at that we hunger for reminders of the selflessness of the human spirit. Disasters, wars and revolutions are a shocking reminder of the fragility of life. In an era of 24-hour news, it's easy to feel like helpless spectators, even voyeurs of grief. That's why we're so affected by stories that show human beings rising above dreadful events.
No matter how bad conditions are at the Fukushima plant, the courage of the volunteers who've remained there has given Japan something to focus on in the midst of a still unfolding tragedy. While their attempts to get the situation under control appear to have been ineffectual, their willingness to risk their lives is a powerful rebuttal of the notion that human beings are motivated by nothing but self-interest. It's an easy mistake to make, when celebrities have an apparently unbreakable hold on the media, forcing us to witness their infantile relationships and obsession with status. Few people these days read the historian Carlyle, who was fascinated by the idea of heroism and offered what used to be a much-quoted corrective. "Adversity is sometimes hard upon a man; but for one man who can stand prosperity, there are a hundred that will stand adversity," he observed.
It isn't always the case that hardship brings out the best in people, but in every disaster there are always individuals who find reserves of courage they didn't know they had. Certainly, the modern notion of heroism is a long way from that of the ancient Greeks, whose heroes strike a modern sensibility as thuggish automata; even Homer was repelled by the conduct of warrior-heroes such as Achilles, who dragged the corpse of Priam's son Hector behind his chariot during the Trojan war. In epic poems and sagas, heroes tend to kill their enemies or be killed, and Lord Byron's poetry is infused with longing for a mythic time when masculinity and violence were inextricably linked. Byron went off to Greece and became a hero of the country's struggle for independence from the Turks, despite dying of malaria rather than wounds received in battle.
These days it isn't necessary to be a man of action (or indeed a man) to be a hero, as the popularity of Aung San Suu Kyi attests. The Burmese opposition leader was released to worldwide acclaim last year after spending the best part of 20 years under house arrest. Modern notions of heroism embrace endurance as well as spectacular single acts, and rightly acknowledge the importance of believing in a larger cause. At the beginning of this year, people around the world were transfixed by the spectacle of men and women pouring into Cairo's Tahrir Square, where they called for the removal of a corrupt dictator. None of them was unaware of the torture routinely used in Hosni Mubarak's prisons, and for days it seemed possible that the regime would respond with customary violence.
The feared bloodbath did not materialise, and events in Egypt and Tunisia encouraged demonstrators to take to the streets in other Arab countries. In Bahrain, Yemen and Libya, protesters have encountered greater resistance. Last week a Libyan doctor, Abdulmajid Ali, returned to his home in Scotland with a horrific account of what he had witnessed while treating victims of Colonel Gaddafi's brutal attempt to hang on to power; in a mortuary in Al Bayda, Dr Ali saw the bodies of children shot in the head or chest by snipers. One encounter in particular, with an 18-year-old who had been shot in the thigh, stayed with him: "I told him his leg was not salvageable. He answered: 'Dr Ali, if it meant Libya was free, I would be ready to sacrifice the other leg, too.' It brought me to tears."
It was anecdotes such as this, and moving interviews with Libyan men and women pleading for international protection, that finally brought about Thursday's historic vote at the UN Security Council. At the same time, it has been impossible to watch the news without getting updates on the crisis at Fukushima or hearing about the dogged efforts of international search-and-rescue teams to find survivors in the quake rubble. Daily exposure to such levels of grief and fear would be intolerable, were it not for the fact that so many individuals have responded with conspicuous courage and fortitude. Modern heroism is quiet, anonymous, but no less inspirational for that.
"Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy," observed the novelist F Scott Fitzgerald. What we've seen in the past few days is the opposite: confronted with tragedy, ordinary people in half a dozen countries have quietly become heroes.