5 Avril 2016
April 5, 2016
By SAWAAKI HIKITA/ Staff Writer
Editor's note: An army of workers, 6,000 or so, battles daily on the front line of the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant to get the site ready for the decades-long process of decommissioning the reactors.
An overwhelming majority of the men are hired by subcontractors and endure low pay, fragile job security and hazardous working conditions. Radiation exposure is a constant risk.
This three-part series is intended to shed light on conditions at the plant and how the people working there feel about their jobs.
It is winter and still dark when the man awakes at 3:30 a.m. to start his working day. He begins by putting on five layers of clothing under his protective gear, and dons two pairs of gloves and socks, the insides of which are stuffed with disposable hand warmers.
But even then, the 36-year-old native of Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, is cold.
Thirty minutes later, a cutting breeze blows from the ocean as the man climbs into a car ordered by his employer to take him to the J-Village facility, where the workers board buses to transport them to the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant 20 kilometers away. The man's job is to lay pipes containing contaminated water at the complex. He works for a fourth-tier subcontractor with Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the plant.
Five years after the triple meltdown, the plant premises are much tidier than in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. Today, the ground is covered with steel sheets.
However, the steel frames of the reactor buildings still stand exposed because the concrete walls were blown out in hydrogen explosions triggered by the overheating of reactor cores.
Inevitably, jobs near the reactor buildings pose radiation risks.
“The closer you get to the reactor buildings, the higher the radiation readings,” the man said. He is required to carry a dosimeter whenever he is on-site.
Each time the man’s dose climbs by 0.16 millisievert, an alarm sounds. If the alarm goes off three times in a single shift, he must stop what he is doing, no matter what work remains to be done.
With a full-face mask and protective gear, working in summer months can be more grueling--and even life-threatening.
He packs ice cubes under his clothes to keep cool, but they melt within 30 minutes.
One summer day, he saw a middle-aged man lying on the floor of a lounge where the workers congregate during their break.
The man had collapsed after the end of his shift. Although the individual was airlifted to a hospital by helicopter, he apparently died of heatstroke.
When the magnitude-9.0 Great East Japan Earthquake struck, the Iwaki man was working inside the No. 1 reactor building. The power went out and in the darkness he heard a loud crashing noise, as if a piece of equipment had suddenly ground to a halt.
He fled the building as fast as he could.
Fissures dotted the concrete surface of the ground and shards of glass were everywhere.
The man took refuge in a structure in the compound known as the “company building.”
A roll call was taken to check that everybody was safe, and then he and his colleagues were dismissed in the evening.
The Iwaki man did not recall seeing the effects of the tsunami on his way home, which he reached at 8 p.m. By that time, he was running a fever and itched all over his body, probably the result of a stressful and nerve-racking day.
A hydrogen explosion rocked the No. 1 reactor building the following day, March 12.
Several days later, the man and his family evacuated to Nagoya, where he has relatives.
But around May, the president of the company he had worked for called and asked him to consider returning to the plant.
After giving the matter some thought, the Iwaki man accepted. His daughter had just turned 1 year old. He had a family to raise. Leaving his family behind, the man returned to Fukushima for a job that pays 11,000 yen ($97) a day.
ANOTHER MAN'S STORY
A 44-year-old man from Nagano Prefecture landed a short-term position at the plant in 2012 after scouring job ads online.
“I wanted to help contain the spread of radioactive contamination,” said the man, who previously worked in a local car dealership.
Shortly after replying to the ad, he was contacted by a subcontractor.
“We have a job to measure workers' radiation levels,” the man was told. “It does not entail exposure to high levels of radiation.”
Relieved, the man headed to Iwaki and signed a one-year contract with a company that called itself a fourth-tier subcontractor.
But when he attended a briefing held by a first-tier subcontractor several days later, he learned that the initial job description was far different from what he had just been told.
“As you know, you will be working in an area where radiation levels are high. That's because the mixers for contaminated water are there,” the official said. “You will be able to stay in the area for five to 10 minutes, no longer.”
The official added that the men would not be involved in replacing the mixers themselves as that is done by veteran workers.
What he and the others were required to do was lay rubber mats on the floor to lower those workers' radiation exposure to enable them to stay longer.
He was also told that workers have to carry breathing apparatus on their backs.
The Nagano man, upset by what he had just learned about the job, protested to the president of the fourth-tier subcontractor afterward.
“It would be impossible for me to continue with this job as long as for a year if I had such a high level of radiation dose,” he said. “This is not what I signed up for.”
The president tried to appease him.
“Even if you had a reading of 1 millisievert a day, it would halve in a week,” the president said. “If you quit at this stage, the company’s reputation would be jeopardized.”
As it happened, the assignment involving high radiation risks was canceled at the last minute.
Instead, the workers were required to clear the glass shards in the compound.
During a break on the first day of his job, in June 2012, he struck up a conversation with a regular employee of a first-tier subcontractor.
“Would you allow your son to work in a job that gives out several millisieverts of exposure a day?” he asked the middle-aged man.
The employee replied: “It will not be a problem legally, but I would not (send my son to do that kind of work).”
On his way back to his lodgings, the president of the fourth-tier subcontractor called him. He was told to stop by at the office of a third-tier subcontractor.
When he showed up, he was met by someone he didn't know.
“What you said at the work site gave us problems,” the stranger said. “You do not need to come to work anymore.”
After arguing with the official, the man returned to Nagano Prefecture three days later.
Later, he noticed his bank account had been credited to the tune of 24,000 yen, reflecting what was left over from several days of wages after accommodation costs had been deducted.
The man said he still has no idea at what point the original assignment to measure radiation doses was switched to one that was, without question, dangerous.