Driving home today, I listened to a interview with an expert who said, "The company that operates the damaged nuclear reactors in Japan probably is asking for volunteers among retired workers -- for obvious reasons."
I took that to mean that if you're old, you don't expect to have nearly as many years left to live as younger workers do, so dying prematurely from radiation exposure, though distressing, would take on a different cast than if you were in your thirties with young children.
A news story confirms that a search for volunteers, both old and young, likely is occurring:
As the radiation levels are rising in damaged nuclear reactors in Japan, a concern has been raised as to how long workers can keep struggling to control it as the radiation exposure continues to rise.
...Arnold Gunderson, a consultant that worked in US plants identical to damaged Japanese plants stated that most probably [the] company was asking retired and workers from other plants to volunteer and sacrifice as they may receive additional radiation exposure.
...Gamma rays, as well as other kind of radiation exposure, can be the cause of cancers and illnesses that can be extremely detrimental to the health in long or short term or could lead to death.
Being 62 myself, I thought about the bravery of those who come out of a comfortable retirement, or employment at a safe nuclear power plant, to risk death in order to save many others from radiation poisoning.
I wondered if I'd be able to do this, if I was given the opportunity.
Emotionally I was moved by the thought of ending my life in a dramatic supernova of self-sacrifice. Yet I also wasn't thrilled with the prospect of suffering through a painful lingering bout of radiation illness.
After these initial reactions to the idea of volunteering to keep a damaged nuclear power plant from melting down, it dawned on me that each of us is faced with less dramatic -- yet equally real -- opportunities to make sacrifices that will save lives.
Such as by being willing to pay higher taxes. And donating additional money to worthy charities.
But since governments are a more potent life-saving force than non-profits, given the resources at their disposal, the money we Americans fork over at tax time is a financial self-sacrifice which enables us to rescue others from premature death, disease, and disability at no bodily risk to ourselves.
I'm not exaggerating. This isn't a progressive's excuse to grow government. It's a fact.
Funding biomedical research saves lives. So does foreign aid aimed at preventing the spread of HIV in Africa. Ditto with expanding access to Medicaid and other low-income health programs. And so on, and so on.
Government programs save many more lives than individual heroism does. Yet we tend to focus on the drama of a fireman pulling a child from a burning building, rather than on the quiet effectiveness of pre-natal services in reducing infant mortality rates.
Back in the 1980's I was the executive director of Oregon Health Decisions, a group that encouraged citizen discussion of bioethical issues. At that time John Kitzhaber (now Oregon's governor) was president of the state Senate.
An emergency room physician, he boldly drew the state's attention to the paradox of how people would willingly make donations to fund a very expensive liver transplant that had a chance of extending one person's life for an uncertain number of years, but they'd balk at funding health prevention and early detection programs which would save many more lives at a lower cost.
This same dynamic is at play in the Japan nuclear reactor story. Appropriately, we admire the selflessness of those willing to sacrifice themselves in the name of a greater good.
Yet too often we fail to recognize the life-saving opportunities open to us right here at home -- by supporting legislation, and tax policies, which spend our money where it will provide the most benefit for our fellow human beings.
We have to recognize that taxes are good.
And that people who are happy to sacrifice more of their disposable income for the sake of others are heroes. Obviously not in the same way as someone who volunteers for dangerous duty at a damaged nuclear power plant, but heroes nonetheless.