Fri, Mar 21, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Job of cleaning Fukushima falls to desperate

A labor crisis has left unskilled, destitute workers in dangerous conditions at Japan’s wrecked nuclear plant

By Hiroko Tabuchi  /  NY Times News Service, NARAHA, Japan

Illustration: Mountain People

“Out of work? Nowhere to live? Nowhere to go? Nothing to eat?” the online ad reads. “Come to Fukushima.”

That grim posting targeting the destitute, by a company seeking workers for Japan’s ravaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, is one of the starkest indications yet of an increasingly troubled search for workers willing to carry out the hazardous decommissioning at the site.

The plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), has been shifting its attention away, leaving the complex cleanup to an often badly managed, poorly trained, demoralized and sometimes unskilled workforce that has made some dangerous missteps.

At the same time, the company is pouring resources into another plant, Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, that it hopes to restart this year as part of the government’s push to return to nuclear energy three years after the world’s second-worst nuclear disaster. It is a move that some members of Japan’s nuclear regulatory board have criticized.

That has translated into jobs at Fukushima that pay less and are more sporadic, chasing away qualified workers. Left behind, workers and others say, is a workforce often assembled by fly-by-night labor brokers with little technical or safety expertise and even less concern about hiring desperate people. Police and labor activists say some of the most aggressive of the brokers have mob ties.

Regulators, contractors and more than 20 current and former workers interviewed in recent months say the deteriorating labor conditions are a prime cause of a string of large leaks of contaminated water and other embarrassing errors that have already damaged the environment and, in some cases, put workers in danger. In the worst-case scenario, experts fear, struggling workers could trigger a bigger spill or another radiological release.

“There is a crisis of manpower at the plant,” said Yukiteru Naka, founder of Tohoku Enterprise, a contractor and former plant engineer for General Electric. “We are forced to do more with less, like firemen being told to use less water even though the fire’s still burning.”

That crisis was especially evident one dark morning in October last year, when a crew of contract workers was sent to remove hoses and valves as part of a long-overdue upgrade to the plant’s water purification system.

According to regulatory filings by TEPCO, the team received only a 20-minute briefing from their supervisor and were given no diagrams of the system they were to fix and no review of safety procedures — a scenario a former supervisor at the plant called unthinkable. Worse yet, the crew were not warned that a hose near the one they would be removing was filled with water laced with radioactive cesium.

As the men shambled off in their bulky protective gear, their supervisor, juggling multiple responsibilities, left to check on another crew. They chose the wrong hose, and a torrent of radioactive water began spilling out. Panicked, the workers thrust their gloved hands into the water to try to stop the leak, spraying themselves and two other workers who raced over to help.

Although the workers received significant exposures, Shigeharu Nakachi, an expert in the health effects of pollution, said it was not enough to cause radiation sickness. Still, he said such exposures were “something that should be avoided at all cost.”

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