TOKYO — The workers at Japan's stricken nuclear power plant — known as the Fukushima 50 — expect some of them will die within weeks or months, the mother of one has reportedly said.
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Tokyo Electric Power Co., the power company that runs the plant, said Friday that leaking radiation had seeped into groundwater beneath the site.
The leak is an indicator of how far TEPCO is from stabilizing the dangerously overheating reactors after cooling systems were knocked out in the March 11 quake and tsunami.
Earlier this week, a Japanese minister conceded there was no end in sight to the crisis, although some of the world's largest cement pumps are being sent to Japan , initially to pump water but then to possibly entomb the site as was done in Chernobyl.
The Fukushima 50, who actually are a group of about 300 people who have been working in shifts of 50, have become heroes in Japan and are known as atomic "samurai."Video: More trouble for Japanese nuclear plant
Speaking to Fox News by phone via an interpreter, the mother of a 32-year-old worker said her son had told her they must have been exposed to lethal doses of radiation.
"My son and his colleagues have discussed it at length and they have committed themselves to die if necessary to save the nation," she said. Fox News said she was tearful as she spoke.
"He told me they have accepted they will all probably die from radiation sickness in the short term or cancer in the long-term," she added.
"They have concluded between themselves that it is inevitable some of them may die within weeks or months. They know it is impossible for them not to have been exposed to lethal doses of radiation," she said.
The woman, who Fox News said spoke on condition of anonymity because the workers had been asked to not speak to the media, added that her son was too scared to sleep on the floor and so had been doing so on a desk.
"But they say high radioactivity is everywhere and I think this will not save him," she said.
Contamination has affected work at the plant, where radioactive water has been pooling, often thwarting the work of powering up the complex's cooling systems.
Sharing radiation meters
Despite the leaks, TEPCO hasn't had enough dosimeters to provide one for each employee since many were destroyed in the earthquake. Under normal circumstances, the gauges, which measure radiation, would be worn at all times.
Officials said Friday that more meters had arrived and there were now enough for everyone.
"We must ensure safety and health of the workers, but we also face a pressing need to get the work done as quickly as possible," said nuclear safety agency spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama. Until now, sharing meters "has been an unavoidable choice."
TEPCO has repeatedly relaxed safety standards during the crisis in order to prevent frequent violations. That is not uncommon during emergencies.Story: View images of quake, tsunami by date, location
TEPCO spokesman Naoyuki Matsumo also said iodine-131, a radioactive substance that decays quickly, was found nearly 50 feet below one of the reactors.
The groundwater contamination was found in concentrations 10,000 times higher than the government standard for the plant.
Seiki Kawagoe, an environmental science professor at Tohoku University, said Friday the radioactive substances were unlikely to affect drinking water, noting that radiation tends to dissipate quickly in the ground, as it does in the ocean.
But there are two ways the iodine could eventually affect drinking water if concentrations were high enough.
One is if it were to seep into wells in the area. For now, a 12-mile radius around the plant has been cleared, though residents of the area are growing increasingly frustrated with evacuation orders and have been sneaking back to check on their homes.
Japanese officials have also suggested people within a 19-mile radius should consider leaving, although high levels of radiation have been found up to 25 miles away.
The other concern is that contaminated water from the plant could seep into underground waterways and eventually into rivers used for drinking water.
Tomohiro Mogamiya, an official with the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare's water supply division, said that was "extremely unlikely" since groundwater would flow toward the ocean, and the plant is right on the coast.
There are two nearby filtration plants for drinking water, and both have been shut down because they are just inside the exclusion zone.
One takes water from the Kido River, to the south, and another takes it from groundwater below Odaka, to the north. Both are several miles from the coast and on higher ground.
"When people return to the area we will test the water to make sure it is safe," said Masato Ishikawa, an official with the Fukushima prefecture's food and sanitation division.
Radiation concerns have rattled the Japanese public, already struggling to return to normal life after the earthquake-borne tsunami pulverized hundreds of miles of the northeastern coast.
Three weeks after the disaster in one of the most connected countries in the world, 260,000 households still do no have running water and 170,000 do not have electricity.
In the latest report of food becoming tainted, the government said Friday that a cow slaughtered for beef had slightly elevated levels of cesium, another radioactive particle. Officials stressed that the meat was never put on the market.
Radioactive cesium can build up in the body and high levels are thought to be a risk for various cancers.
It is still found in wild boar in Germany 25 years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, making the pigs off-limits for eating in many cases.
Though TEPCO has acknowledged that it was initially slow to ask for help in dealing with the nuclear crisis, experts from around the world are now flooding in.
French nuclear giant Areva, which supplied fuel to the plant, is helping figure out how to dispose of contaminated water, and American nuclear experts are joining Japanese on a panel to address the disaster.
Japan has also ordered two giant pumps, typically used for spraying concrete, from the U.S.
They are being retrofitted to spray water first, according to Kelly Blickle, a spokeswoman at Putzmeister America Inc. in Wisconsin. At least one similar pump is already in operation at the plant.
A construction company in Augusta, Ga., was among those redirecting the pumps to Japan. Its owner said he believes building a concrete sarcophagus will follow.
"Our understanding is they are preparing to go to next phase and it will require a lot of concrete," Jerry Ashmore told the Augusta Chronicle.
He did not expect the pump to return. "It will be too hot to come back," Ashmore said.Video: EPA admits to glitches in radiation monitors
U.S. troops also are involved in the search for the dead. Japan's defense ministry said that, starting Friday, the two militaries will create joint teams to look for bodies from the air. So far 11,500 people have been confirmed dead. Another 16,400 are missing, and many may never be found.
Hundreds of thousands more people are living in evacuation centers, most because they lost their homes in the tsunami. But others have been forced to leave their houses near the plant because of radiation concerns.
Some residents are growing angry and frustrated with the government and are increasingly violating the bans to return to their homes to gather whatever they can find.
Fukushima officials have put up posters in all evacuation centers urging residents not to violate the cordon, but also are pressing Tokyo to arrange trips in for the residents as soon as possible.
"There is no doubt in my mind that it is dangerous in there," said Kazuko Hirohara, a 52-year-old nurse from Minami Soma. "I just wish they would have thought about safety before they ruined our lives."
The Associated Press, Reuters and NBC News contributed to this story.