After toiling under hazardous conditions for 17 months to contain the crisis at Fukushima No. 1, the nuclear plant’s workers are suffering from work-related stress and unable to get proper counseling due to lack of funding, a communications counselor warned Monday.
Despite the dangers and uncertainty they face, Tokyo Electric Power Co. isn’t providing enough psychological support because the utility is under immense cost-cutting pressure, said Hideki Yabuhara, president of Kyoto-based Wamon Inc.
Wamon provides mental health expertise to companies, organizations and individuals and helps improve to employee communications skills. Last October, Yabuhara began volunteering his skills once a month at Fukushima No. 1.
The responsibility that Tepco’s employees feel in Fukushima Prefecture is overwhelming, Yabuhara said.
“I do not think it’s inconceivable that some of them may consider taking their own lives” if proper mental support isn’t provided, he said.
Speaking at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo, Yabuhara said the workers have to bear with the tough reality of being employed by the utility responsible for the triple-meltdown crisis. Tepco, which was effectively nationalized last month, will have to pay huge damages to residents and businesses and foot the cost of decommissioning the crippled reactors. The utility plans to cut trillions yen of costs, including by slashing salaries 20 to 30 percent.
Yabuhara said some of the workers are people who actually lost their families and homes in the March 11 disasters but have been unable to reconcile the conflicting mentalities of both victim and villain.
Meanwhile, despite the government’s claim that working conditions at the plant are improving, Yabuhara said they remain poor.
For instance, workers still sleep in temporary housing units with walls “as thin as a paper” that allow them to hear their coworkers sleeping next door, he said.
It is unclear why the utility would subject its workers to such poor conditions, given the dire task they face. But Yabuhara said cost-cutting might be to blame.
“This is my personal opinion, but I think because of the harsh bashing by the media, Tepco cannot spend a lot of money (on improving mental support and working conditions),” he said.
Since last October, Yabuhara has spoken with about 250 workers. At first, he went to give emotional support to Masao Yoshida, who was then chief of the No. 1 plant, but Yoshida also asked him to provide counseling to the rest of the staff.
When the crisis started, “my instinct told me that the contribution I can make as a therapist is to provide mental support to on-site workers,” said Yabuhara.
He has given one-on-one counseling sessions to executives at the plant and now hosts group sessions with managerial workers to improve their communications skills so they can more smoothly communicate with their fellow workers, resulting in more efficient workflow.
Yabuhara said he wanted to offer his help right after the crisis started, so he contacted then-Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda, the current prime minister, with whom he had personal connections. But Noda told him he could not go to the crippled plant because the situation there was too chaotic at the time.
Later on, he asked a friend who used to work for Tepco and was introduced to the utility’s former president, Nobuya Minami, who introduced him to a plant executive.
He said Tepco has offered to at least pay for his transportation, but he declined to take any money from the utility, because “I don’t to want be perceived as being under Tepco’s control,” he said.