Page 1 of 2 Japan's cut-price cleanup of Fukushima disaster
By Justin McCurry and David McNeill
FUKUSHIMA - During a visit to Fukushima Daiichi in September, Abe Shinzo told workers: "The future of Japan rests on your shoulders. I am counting on you."
The prime minister's exhortation was directed at almost 6,000 technicians and engineers, truck drivers and builders who, almost three years after the plant suffered a triple meltdown, remain on the frontline of the world's most hazardous industrial cleanup.
Yet as the challenges facing Fukushima Daiichi become clearer with every new radiation leak and mishap, the men responsible for cleaning up the plant are suffering from plummeting morale, health problems and deep anxiety about the future. Even now, at the start of a decommissioning operation that is expected to last four
decades, the plant faces a shortage of workers qualified to manage the dangerous work that lies ahead, according to people with firsthand knowledge of the situation inside the facility.
The dangers faced by the nearly 900 employees of Tokyo Electric Power [Tepco] and some 5,000 workers hired by a network of contractors and sub-contractors were underlined in October when six men were doused with contaminated water at a desalination facility. Their brush with danger was a sign that the cleanup is entering its most precarious stage since the March 2011 meltdown.
Commenting on the latest leak, the head of Japan's nuclear regulator Tanaka Shunichi, told reporters: "Mistakes are often linked to morale. People usually don't make silly, careless mistakes when they're ... motivated and working in a positive environment. The lack of it, I think, may be related to the recent problems."
Fukushima nuclear workers 201
The radiation spill was the latest in a string of serious water and radiation leaks that have raised questions about the state of mind of the workforce, and Tepco's ability to continue the cleanup alone. According to sources with inside knowledge of the plant, the slew of bad news is sapping morale and causing anxiety, as the public and international community raise pressure on Japan to show demonstrable progress in cleaning up the world's worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.
"Very little has changed at Fukushima Daiichi in the past six months," says Shigemura Jun, a lecturer in the psychiatry department of the National Defense Medical College who heads a team of psychologists that counsels Fukushima plant workers. "Tepco is doing its best to improve the situation, but you can see that the situation is severe."
Shigemura is most concerned about the 70% of Tepco workers at Fukushima Daiichi who were also forced to evacuate their homes by the meltdown. They have yet to come to terms with the loss of their homes, and many are living apart from their families in makeshift accommodation near the plant.
Inside the Fukushima Daiichi plant, a makeshift sleeping area for onsite workers.
"They were traumatized by the tsunami and the reactor explosions, and had no idea how much they had been irradiated," Shigemura says. "That was the acute effect, but now they are suffering from the chronic effects, such as depression, loss of motivation and issues with alcohol."
Men such as Watanabe Kai (30), who was forced to flee his family home in March 2011, have never had psychological counseling and were immediately thrown back into the fight to save the Daiichi plant. Today, he monitors tanks full of highly toxic water for leaks. For a job with potentially serious consequences on his health, he is paid 15,000 yen (US$153) a day.
Relatively little is known about the people who work at the Daiichi plant. Tepco severely rations interviews with its full-time staff. Contract workers such as Watanabe, employed by one of dozens of subcontractors, rarely talk to journalists because they fear for their jobs. Watanabe insists on a pseudonym for interviews.
Born and raised in the town of Okuma, a few miles from the plant, Watanabe's family are nuclear refugees. His mother and father left the home he shared with them on March 12 and now live and work in Iwaki, 34 kilometers south of the plant. He doesn't believe they will ever return. Like Pripyat, the Ukrainian town evacuated after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, Okuma is a nuclear ghost town.
Watanabe labored through the disaster at the Daiichi plant until he reached his annual limit for radiation exposure. He then cycled through the remaining jobs for nuclear workers in Fukushima, ending up with a decontamination crew, cleaning up the radiation that poisoned his home. The irony wasn't lost on him but he says he bears no grudges. "We have to fix the mess we made."
Anxiety over pay, conditions and personal health is compounded by uncertainty over the future of their embattled employer. Tepco is coming under mounting pressure to resolve the worsening water crisis at Fukushima Daiichi, which recently prompted the government to step in with US$500 million to help contain the buildup of toxic water.
Its ability to solve stem the water leaks by the time Tokyo hosts the Olympics in 2020 - as promised by Abe - could be hampered by a looming labor shortage. As Tepco cut costs and attempted to calm public anger over its handling of the crisis, it imposed a 20% pay cut for all employees in 2011. From a total workforce of 37,000, 1,286 people left the firm between April 2011 and June this year. Tepco did not hire any employees in fiscal 2012 and 2013.
Remarkably, despite his service to the Daiichi plant, Watanabe was made redundant earlier this year. Tepco no longer had money to pay subcontractors, he says. (Tepco declined to comment on this allegation.)
If it seems odd that the utility is running out of cash to clean up from the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, that's because it is, says Watanabe. "Every penny the company spends in Fukushima is a loss. So the mentality is to save as much as possible, not to ensure good conditions and safety for workers."
Tepco's astonishing penny-pinching became evident during the summer of 2013, when the company revealed it was relying on a skeleton crew to monitor a huge plantation of 1,000-ton makeshift water tanks for leaks. Instead of installing gauges, engineers were checking 1,000 tanks visually by standing on top of them.
Japan's nuclear regulator said the leak was serious enough to warrant level three on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (Fukushima and Chernobyl were level seven). More problematically for Japan, the revelation triggered a political furor just as Tokyo, 230 kilometers from the plant, made its final pitch to host the 2020 Olympics. In a controversial speech to the International Olympic Committee in Buenos Aires, Abe told the world to stop worrying. "Let me assure you the situation is under control," he said, advising committee delegates to read "past the headlines and look at the facts".
For Watanabe, the pledge was important. A few days later, he got a call from his subcontractor. Flush with new cash, Tepco was now hiring nearly 100 men to monitor those leaking tanks. The utility also promised to finally install gauges on about one-third of the most vulnerable water tanks, and build a giant artificial wall to stop contaminated groundwater from reaching the Pacific.
So Watanabe has a job again, for now. Some time soon, he will have absorbed 50 millisieverts of radiation - twice the annual recommended dose for nuclear workers, and then he will have to reconsider his options.
As a nuclear refugee, he gets free health treatment but no life insurance - he has been told that's his responsibility. He is not married, and doubts he ever will be: "I would have to confess what I did, and what woman would accept it?" Eventually, he believes, Tepco and the government will run out of people to do what he does. "What will they do then?"
The utility plans to take on 331 new employees next April, according to Mayumi Yoshida, a Tepco spokeswoman. "[The employment] system will change so it will be easier for talented employees to gain promotion, and for unproductive employees to be demoted," Yoshida said.
Even if, as many predict, Tepco's balance sheet is in better shape this time next year, there is little it can do about the exodus of some workers. Tepco documents show that between March 2011 and July this year, 138 employees reached the 100-millisievert [mSv] threshold; another 331 had been exposed to between 75 mSv and 100 mSv, meaning their days at the plant are numbered.
Those nearing their dose limit have reportedly been moved to other sites (like Watanabe) or asked to take time off, so they can return to work at Fukushima Daiichi at a later date. Others have left due to exhaustion and stress or to find work closer to their displaced relatives. "They are less motivated, " says Shigemura, "and are worried about continuing to work for a firm that might not exist in a decade from now." Workers who have stayed on do so in the knowledge that they risk damaging their health through prolonged exposure to radiation and in accidents of the kind that occurred this week.
Earlier this year, Tepco said that 1,973 workers, including those employed by contractors and subcontractors, had estimated thyroid radiation doses in excess of 100 mSv, the level at which many physicians agree the risk of developing cancer begins to rise.
"These workers may show a tiny increased risk of cancer over their lifetimes," says Gerry Thomas, professor of molecular pathology at Imperial College, London University.