Japanese Workers Braved Radiation for a Temp Job
By HIROKO TABUCHI
Mr. Ishizawa, 55, raced to the plant’s central gate. But a security guard would not let him out of the complex. A long line of cars had formed at the gate, and some drivers were blaring their horns. “Show me your IDs,” Mr. Ishizawa remembered the guard saying, insisting that he follow the correct sign-out procedure. And where, the guard demanded, were his supervisors?
“What are you saying?” Mr. Ishizawa said he shouted at the guard. He looked over his shoulder and saw a dark shadow on the horizon, out at sea, he said. He shouted again
Mr. Ishizawa, who was finally allowed to leave, is not a nuclear specialist; he is not even an employee of the Tokyo Electric Power Company, the operator of the crippled plant. He is one of thousands of untrained, itinerant, temporary laborers who handle the bulk of the dangerous work at nuclear power plants here and in other countries, lured by the higher wages offered for working with radiation. Collectively, these contractors were exposed to levels of radiation about 16 times as high as the levels faced by Tokyo Electric employees last year, according to Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, which regulates the industry. These workers remain vital to efforts to contain the nuclear crisis at the
They are emblematic of
“This is the hidden world of nuclear power,” said Yuko Fujita, a former physics professor at
Of roughly 83,000 workers at
Interviews with about a half-dozen past and current workers at Fukushima Daiichi and other plants paint a bleak picture of workers on the nuclear circuit
Some workers are hired from construction sites, and some are local farmers looking for extra income. Yet others are hired by local gangsters, according to a number of workers who did not want to give their names.
They spoke of the constant fear of getting fired, trying to hide injuries to avoid trouble for their employers, carrying skin-colored adhesive bandages to cover up cuts and bruises.
In the most dangerous places, current and former workers said, radiation levels would be so high that workers would take turns approaching a valve just to open it, turning it for a few seconds before a supervisor with a stopwatch ordered the job to be handed off to the next person. Similar work would be required at the
“Your first priority is to avoid pan-ku,” said one current worker at the
Takeshi Kawakami, 64, remembers climbing into the spent-fuel pool of the No. 1 reactor at the
“It was unbearable, and you had your mask on, and it was so tight,” Mr. Kawakami said. “I started feeling dizzy. I could not even see what I was doing. I thought I would drown in my own sweat.”
Since the mid-1970s, about 50 former workers have received workers’ compensation after developing leukemia and other forms of cancer. Health experts say that though many former workers are experiencing health problems that may be a result of their nuclear work, it is often difficult to prove a direct link. Mr. Kawakami has received a diagnosis of stomach and intestinal cancer.
News of workers’ mishaps turns up periodically in safety reports
Most day workers were evacuated from
The two workers who were injured two weeks ago when they stepped in radioactive water were subcontractor employees. As of Thursday, 21 workers at the plant had each been exposed to cumulative radiation levels of more than 100 millisieverts, or the usual limit set for nuclear plant workers during an emergency, according to
The company refused to say how many contract workers had been exposed to radiation. Of roughly 300 workers left at the plant on Thursday, 45 were employed by contractors, the company said.
Day laborers are being lured back to the plant by wages that have increased along with the risks of working there. Mr. Ishizawa, whose home is about a mile from the plant and who evacuated with the town’s other residents the day after the quake, said he had been called last week by a former employer who offered daily wages of about $350 for just two hours of work at the
Working conditions have improved over the years, experts say. While exposure per worker dropped in the 1990s as safety standards improved, government statistics show, the rates have been rising since 2000, partly because there have been more accidents as reactors age. Moreover, the number of workers in the industry has risen, as the same tasks are carried out by more employees to reduce individual exposure levels.
Tetsuen Nakajima, chief priest of the 1,200-year-old
The union, he said, made 19 demands of plant operators, including urging operators not to forge radiation exposure records and not to force workers to lie to government inspectors about safety procedures. Although more than 180 workers belonged to the union at its peak, its leaders were soon visited by thugs who kicked down their doors and threatened to harm their families, he said.
“They were not allowed to speak up,” Mr. Nakajima said. “Once you enter a nuclear power plant, everything’s a secret.”
Last week, conversations among
Mr. Ishizawa, the only one who allowed his name to be used, said, “I might go back to a nuclear plant one day, but I’d have to be starving.” In addition to his jobs at Daiichi, he has worked at thermal power plants and on highway construction sites in the region. For now, he said, he will stay away from the nuclear industry.
“I need a job,” he said, “but I need a safe job.”
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs
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