Daily grind of decommissioning continues for workers at Fukushima plant

Kyodo

Five years after the March 2011 nuclear calamity started at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant, Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s efforts to contain the radioactive water at the site still makes headlines.

But not much is known about the daily lives and operations of some 7,000 workers at the plant engaged in decommissioning and other tasks.

To offer a glimpse of the workplace, Kyodo News followed Yasuki Hibi, 52, who heads major contractor Kajima Corp.’s civil engineering office at the wrecked plant, for a day last month. His office takes on a number of projects, including processing contaminated water and highly radioactive rubble.

“I feel that time has stopped here since that day,” said Hibi. “By taking part in the decommissioning work, I hope to let time flow again. Some of the workers were brought up in the local area, doing their best despite the circumstances.”

Hibi leaves his apartment in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, about 50 km south of the complex, just before 8 a.m., dropping by at Kajima’s Iwaki office to check paperwork before traveling to another office in the town of Tomioka and then the nuclear plant. His wife and son live in Tokyo.

Kajima’s office at the plant is located in a building by the main gate. The building serves as a resting place for workers at the complex and houses offices for other firms engaged in decommissioning work.

Around 100 workers a day, including from affiliated companies, come and go at the Kajima office. The contractor is in charge of building sea walls near the plant aimed at prevent radiation-contaminated water from spilling into the ocean, as well as transporting highly radioactive soil to designated sites.

Hibi was posted to Kajima’s Fukushima plant office in January 2011, two months before the earthquake and tsunami struck. At the time, his job was to reinforce the earthquake resistance of reactors 5 and 6, which survived the disaster.

But after March 11, 2011, Kajima’s mission was focused on removing vehicles scattered by the tsunami and building a temporary sea wall, he said.

“Of Kajima’s civil engineering sections, the office at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant is unique,” Hibi said. “The radiation level in the air has dropped significantly, but there still are many hot spots around the reactor buildings.”

When Hibi arrives at the office, he makes sure the day’s work is in progress as scheduled. Some 20 workers on the early shift are already working at the complex by then.

Lunchtime is one of the few occasions where workers can relax.

The building’s eatery offers five different menu items, ranging from set meals to rice bowl dishes and noodles, and they are served at ¥380 with extra-large helpings for free. The food is cooked at a kitchen about 9 km away and carried there warm. Before the eatery opened, workers had to buy boxed lunches at convenience stores.

A large portion of Hibi’s work focuses on ensuring workers’ safety.

“Many other firms are involved and there are many cases in which workers need to work in small areas,” Hibi said. “I pay attention so that we won’t cause accidents.”

When he holds a meeting with staff who oversee the work site, Hibi asks detailed questions to avoid possible problems.

“Has there been anything wrong with the equipment recently?” Hibi asks the workers. “Is there any frost on the pipes?”

At noon, about 20 workers on the noon shift gather in the office, sitting in a circle for a meeting with Hibi. Afterward, they stand and together say: “Be safe!”

The workers change into disposable protective gear, including two thin rubber gloves on top of cotton ones. Adhesive tape is used to seal the gloves to the protective clothing so radiation won’t seep in.

Names and affiliations are written on the back and front of the protective gear in big, bold letters to clarify who’s who.

Workers appear used to the drill they have conducted for the past five years. One notable change is the half-face mask covering their mouth and nose, replacing a full-face mask used early on.

After seeing them off, Hibi also heads to the No. 1 reactor building, where workers are preparing to pour a bulking agent into an underground trench.

The radiation level is relatively high in this area, recording around 170 microsieverts per hour. A commercial flight between Tokyo and New York exposes passengers to about 10 microsieverts per hour. About 10 workers wear black vests made of tungsten over their protective gear. The vests reportedly reduce the radiation exposure to internal organs by 30 percent.

“Make sure that you are properly equipped to prevent a fall,” Hibi says to a worker through his mask. Checking various sites on the plant takes about two hours.

At 3:30 p.m., workers return to the office. Their working hours are limited to prevent excessive radiation exposure.

Shortly after 4 p.m., Hibi leaves the Kajima office. However, his day is not over yet. He heads to the firm’s office in Iwaki to check on upcoming construction schedules. It is close to 9 p.m. when he arrives back at his apartment.

Hibi’s day only illustrates a portion of what is going on at the Fukushima plant and he is well aware that the task of decommissioning has a long way to go.

“When I was involved in a project to dig a tunnel for a subway in Taiwan, I went to ride the train after it was completed,” Hibi said. “But decommissioning at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant won’t be completed anytime soon.

“I hope that when I turn 80-something, I can visit here and see how much progress has been made.”