A North American union that represents thousands of U.S. Department of Energy workers is calling their Japanese counterparts who are working at the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant “heroes.”

United Steelworkers (USW) International President Leo W. Gerard yesterday commended the workers who are attempting to cool down the reactors and spent nuclear rods at the plant. “They are risking their lives to prevent the meltdown of the reactors and fuel rods so millions of people do not die from the effects of radiation exposure,” Gerard said.

“We are concerned about the safety of these workers and know they are heroically putting themselves at risk. The workers’ selfless devotion to their country and the safety of millions of their countrymen is to be admired, respected and honored. These Fukushima Daiichi nuclear workers are heroes.”

In interviews aired by Japanese national television, some relatives of the men called the “Fukushima Fifty” – although the number is now closer to 200 – said their loved ones had volunteered to do the work, despite the risk.

Said one; “My father is still working at the plant. He says he's accepted his fate, much like a death sentence.”

Experts have said the workers' airtight suits would not prevent contamination.

In addition to the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) technicians, Self-Defense Forces and firemen are also being exposed to radiation while driving trucks up to overheating reactors to douse them with water.

Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency has upgraded the the disaster to a level 5, after realizing the full extent of the radiation leaking from the plant. A level 5 classification is sufficient to cause “several radiation deaths,” by the UN International Atomic Energy.

After detecting high levels of radioactive iodine in the city’s water supply, the Tokyo government today declared it unsafe for babies.

While many Americans remain concerned about radiation reaching our shores, the Environmental Protection Agency said yesterday that radiation levels detected by monitors in California and Washington State are “hundreds of thousand to millions of times below levels of concern.”