TEPCO has refused to say how experienced these workers were, but according to regulatory filings, the company that hired them signed a contract for the work a week before the leak. TEPCO also refused to say whether the contractor procured them from labor brokers, which is an often illegal — if widely accepted — part of hiring at nuclear plants.
In a written reply to questions, TEPCO said it “is not in a position to comment on the employment practices” of its contractors.
Similarly, TEPCO has refused to divulge a full accounting of a recent leak at the plant — the worst spill in six months — which occurred when workers filling storage tanks with contaminated water remotely diverted it into the wrong tank. However, even the scant information available points to confusion by workers.
They ignored alarms warning of an overflow because so many tanks are near capacity, alarms ring all the time. No one noticed that water levels in the tank that was supposed to be receiving the water never rose.
“It’s an extremely elementary mistake,” Toyoshi Fuketa, a commissioner at Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority, said at a recent hearing. “If a fire alarm went off in your house, you’d be worried, let alone a nuclear power plant.”
TEPCO deputy nuclear chief Masayuki Ono later said that “it did not occur to us to actually go to the scene to check.”
At the heart of the plant’s problems is a multitiered hiring system in the nuclear industry that critics have long said allowed the large utilities that run the plants to distance themselves from troubles that arise. Under the system, a plant hires contractors who parcel out work to several layers of subcontractors. At the bottom, subjected to the dirtiest work, are the so-called “nuclear gypsies” — itinerant laborers lured by the industry’s generally good wages.
The accident has only magnified the problems the system allows. According to company records, contract workers at Fukushima Dai-ichi receive, on average, more than twice the radiation exposure of TEPCO employees. The layered system, many say, also allows for relatively little oversight by TEPCO.
In a recent interview, a TEPCO spokeswoman said that the company regularly evaluated its contractors and required them to provide their workers with a class on the basics of radiation. She denied charges of widespread cheating made by some workers.
However, at a news conference last month, chief nuclear regulator Shunichi Tanaka said: “There is a subcontracting structure that means even workers from third or fourth-level contractors work at the site, and TEPCO does not have a clear picture of what’s happening on the ground.”
Naka, the contractor who talked of a manpower crisis, said many of his best engineers — including those who battled explosions and fires in the early days of the crisis — have either quit, or cannot work at the plant because they have reached legal radiation limits for the year.
Yoshitatsu Uechi is one of the people who has stepped in for more experienced workers. A former bus driver and construction worker, Uechi has never before worked at a nuclear plant.
He was paid about US$150 a day to work on one of the plant’s most pressing jobs: building tanks to store contaminated water. He describes hurried days, saying he was told at one point by his contractor to continue sealing the seams of the tanks despite rain and snow that made the sealant slide off.