Dressed in a hazardous materials suit, full-face mask and hard hat, Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe, left his audience in no doubt: "The future of Japan," he said, "rests on your shoulders. I am counting on you."
Abe's exhortation, delivered during a recent visit to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, was only heard by a small group of men inside the plant's emergency control room. But it was directed at almost 6,000 more: the technicians and engineers, truck drivers and builders who, almost three years after the plant suffered a triple meltdown, remain on the frontline of the world's most dangerous industrial cleanup.
Yet as the scale of the challenge has become clearer with every new accident and radiation leak, the men working inside the plant are suffering from plummeting morale, health problems and anxiety about the future, according to insiders interviewed by the Guardian.
Even now, at the start of a decommissioning operation that is expected to last 40 years, the plant faces a shortage of workers qualified to manage the dangerous work that lies ahead.
The hazards faced by the nearly 900 employees of Tokyo Electric Power [Tepco] and about 5,000 workers hired by a network of contractors and sub-contractors were underlined this month when six men were doused with contaminated water at a desalination facility.
The men, who were wearing protective clothing, suffered no ill health effects in the incident, according to Tepco, but their brush with danger was a sign that the cleanup is entering its most precarious stage since the meltdown in March 2011.
Commenting on the leak, the head of Japan's nuclear regulator, Shunichi Tanaka, told reporters: "Mistakes are often linked to morale. People usually don't make silly, careless mistakes when they're motivated and working in a positive environment. The lack of it, I think, may be related to the recent problems."