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

Fri, Mar 21, 2014 - Page 9

“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.”

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.

He believes such slipshod work eventually compromised the tanks, some of which have since leaked.

“I spoke out many times on the defects, but nobody listened,” said Uechi, a father of four who says he left Okinawa and its depressed economy for Fukushima to provide a better life for his children.

He said he rarely saw TEPCO managers while on the job.

He said he expressed his worries not only to his immediate bosses, but to TEPCO.

Asked about the complaints, TEPCO said it could not discuss individual workers out of privacy concerns.

TEPCO has promised to increase compensation to make up for the risky and unstable nature of the work. Still, workers eating dinner at a dormitory near the plant were skeptical, especially about whether they would receive any extra money.

“Once the many levels of contractors skim off their share, there’s not very much left for us,” one worker in his 40s said, as he and two colleagues washed down a simple meal of chicken, eggplant and rice with beer and whiskey.

Each of the men — who feared being fired if their names were used — was housed in tiny rooms with a bed and a desk. The area around the dormitory is mainly deserted, since many people refused to move back after the accident.

Workers say there is little to do at night other than watch TV, play roulette at a tiny game center and drink. A store inside “J-Village” — TEPCO’s base outside the plant — sells beer, whiskey and sake. According to several accounts, alcoholism is rampant, and one worker said he and his colleagues sometimes showed up for work hung over.

Struggling to maintain 3,000 workers at the plant — compared with 4,500 at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant — labor brokers are getting desperate. Mostly chased away by labor activists from urban areas where day laborers and homeless people congregate, the brokers have increasingly taken their pleas online and made clear their standards are low.

One ad, for work involving radiation monitoring, said, “You must have common sense and be able to carry out a conversation.”

Although it is unclear if any workers were living on the streets before they came to the plant, laborers and others familiar with the workforce say many people there are living on the edge.

“We’re talking people who are basically living hand-to-mouth,” said Hiroyuki Watanabe, a City Council member in nearby Iwaki.

One worker who refused to give his name said he was already so vulnerable that he ended up homeless when he lost his job cleaning contaminated mud off workers’ boots. Another, hired to check for cracks at the plant’s reactors, said he arrived after losing his factory job and losing a place to live when he broke up with his girlfriend.

The labor broker he said that he worked with, a company called Takahashi Kensetsu, did not ask about his credentials.

He says he was often unsure what he was checking for on the reactors, and received little explanation of potential hazards. After his pay was delayed and he was denied overtime, he quit. He has won some back pay with help from the local labor standards office.

Takahashi Kensetsu had disappeared by then — empty beer cans and comic books littered its vacant offices during a recent visit — so the labor advocates got the money from the contractor that hired the broker. Takahashi Kensetsu could not be found in an official local business registry, and repeated calls to the number listed in its ad rang with no answer.

Other contractors in Fukushima and labor activists say Takahashi Kensetsu is affiliated with a local chapter of Inagawa-kai, one of Japan’s largest organized crime groups, or yakuza. Workers, contractors and lawyers say the yakuza has long been involved in providing workers to nuclear plants, and at least one contractor penalized over labor-law abuses at Fukushima was identified by the police as having ties to the yakuza.

“Tokyo Electric has no idea who’s really handling the job on the ground,” said Takeshi Katsura, who helped the worker win back pay. “It’s a free-for-all.”