Crisis worker woes, shortage another story

Calm at J. Village belies the danger

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

Tokyo Electric Power Co. on Friday for the first time let reporters into the base camp for thousands of workers striving every day to fix the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, showing off new dining facilities, a dormitory for single workers and the latest radioactivity monitors to check vehicles and clothing.

What wasn’t readily apparent, however, is the number of temporary dispatch workers without job or health insurance, and who face the ax once their radiation exposure tops out, according to a municipal assembly member from a nearby city.

Tepco had long barred reporters from visiting J. Village in the town of Naraha, Fukushima Prefecture, the main gate police are using to control access to the 20 km no-go zone around the Fukushima plant.

All the workers going to and from the Fukushima plant must stop at J. Village and undergo radiation checks and thorough decontamination procedures if necessary.

On average, 2,100 workers a day are trying to tame the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 plant, which experienced three reactor meltdowns in March.

Tepco apparently waited until working conditions improved before officially allowing reporters to visit, and J. Village, a former soccer training complex now being used by Tepco, is no longer in crisis mode.

Tepco recently opened a new dormitory for single workers that can house 1,000, complete with cafeteria and laundry facilities.

The outside radiation reading at J. Village, located 20 km from the plant, now stands at about 0.5 microsiervert per hour, about 10 times higher than in Tokyo but not high enough to force an evacuation.

“The situation has calmed down a lot here now. We find fewer (irradiated) cars,” Toshiro Iinuma, 56, a worker from Tokyo-based maintenance firm Atox, told reporters Friday at J. Village.

Tepco decided to let in reporters as the government is preparing to soon declare that the crippled reactors have achieved cold shutdown, as temperatures have remained under 100 degrees for weeks.

Reporters will be officially allowed to enter the Fukushima No. 1 plant Saturday for the first time since March 11 as part of a press tour.

But despite significant improvements in services and facilities at J. Village, serious problems have remained for workers at Fukushima No. 1, insiders say.

Hiroyuki Watanabe, a member of the Iwaki Municipal Assembly, has interviewed about 20 nuclear plant workers and some have told him conditions were extremely bad. Some even claimed they only had a verbal contract for the job.

Many were sent by subcontractor dispatch companies that do not provide job or health insurance, which is illegal, Watanabe said.

The workers are often abandoned by personnel companies once their cumulative radiation exposure exceeds the legal limits, Watanabe said.

“For example, one worker kept working at the Fukushima No. 1 plant for more than 10 years. Even after the accident, he kept working and he was fired after his dose exceeded 40 millisieverts,” Watanabe said. “He had once falsified his exposure records so he would not lose his job.”

Yukiteru Naka, who runs the Fukushima-based nuclear plant maintenance outfit Tohoku Enterprise Co., sees another long-term labor issue that he says could increase the chances of serious human-error accidents occurring.

Tepco is running out of midlevel skilled nuclear plant workers, given the legal limit for radiation exposure, he warned.

Naka’s company has 23 skilled workers who have engaged in efforts to contain the crisis.

The firm had already withdrawn 14 to 15 of them because their cumulative exposure is near the firm’s annual maximum limit. They won’t resume work at the plant until April 1, when the new fiscal year starts, he said.

“About 90 percent of accidents at a nuclear plant are caused by human error. And human error means they don’t have enough knowledgeable engineers who can keep the situation under control,” he said.

Skilled engineers are badly needed at present to contain the crisis, as workers have to quickly finish their tasks before being exposed to dangerously high levels of radiation.

“(Workers) should know the locations of valves, which pipes run where, and what’s inside them; cold water, hot water or steam,” he said.

“And they need to go quickly to their destination in the plant and speedily finish their work because the radiation is high,” he said.

The government recently lowered the maximum allowable radiation exposure to 100 millisieverts. Many companies also have their own maximum limits, which means experienced workers must retreat from a nuclear plant once the cumulative dose hits the ceiling.

Naka said nuclear plants haven’t had enough midlevel skilled workers for 20 years.

The Fukushima crisis has floored the nuclear industry’s image and will further discourage young people from seeking such work, Naka said.

“We need an environment where young nuclear plant workers can be proud of their jobs,” he said. “We need to improve both the image and working conditions, which will decrease the chance of human errors.”