15 Mars 2015
March 12, 2015
Four years ago, crews at Fukushima Daiichi in Japan were racing to keep the nuclear plant from spiraling out of control following the earthquake and tsunami. Today, that sense of urgency has dissipated. But the situation remains serious as workers juggle a host of problems as they decommission the facility. Given the risks involved, health concerns and other worries weigh heavily on their minds.
Fifty-one-year-old Mitsuhiro Maeda has been working for more than 20 years as an electrical contractor at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.
Before the accident, he supervised 30 workers and took pride in his contribution to the plant. "I felt we were helping Japan," he recalls. "We were generating electricity, and supporting the country."
Maeda rushed to the plant when he heard about the accident. He worked on restoring external power, which was crucial in cooling the reactors and averting an even bigger disaster. "Someone had to restore power at the Daiichi plant. I just acted because it was my duty," he says.
Working in the aftermath of the disaster, he was exposed to the maximum permissible amount of radiation. Health and safety restrictions prevent him from returning to Daiichi until next year.
Every day about 7,000 workers help decommission the reactors. In heavy protective clothing, they carry out such tasks as collecting and storing contaminated water. However, the decommissioning work is expected to take up to 40 years to complete. Keeping stress levels down and morale up is proving difficult.
Maeda says a change of mood has definitely come over his staff. He also says it's getting harder to find new skilled workers. His company now has only one-third the number of experienced workers it had before the accident. "If it carries on like this, we'll go out of business," he says.
Four years after the disaster, the decontamination of land around the plant continues. But it is hard to predict when places like Maeda's hometown of Namie will be habitable again. He says many residents are losing hope of returning home.
Maeda is helping decommission the reactor out of a sense of duty to his hometown, he says he sometimes loses his faith in the future and is starting to doubt whether it's a good idea to continue his business. We need to figure out how to pass on this responsibility to the next generation. Otherwise I can't see a clear future for the power plant," he says.
Reducing the risk of radiation and improving the working environment is important, but these efforts are not enough to secure workers over the long-term. Those on the front lines, like Maeda, also need to have motivation and hope.