Japan Workers Bear Brunt of Nuke Clean-up

Suvendrini Kakuchi

HAVANA TIMES, June 25 (IPS) — Twenty-eight-year-old Yushi Sato washes cars for a living, but they are no ordinary cars. Every day, Sato hoses down vehicles contaminated with radiation from the Fukushima Nuclear Power plant that was damaged by the earthquake and tsunami that hit north-east Japan Mar 11.

Sato, who has worked at the Fukushima plant for the past five years, used to be a welder, but after the disaster struck he was assigned the job of washing the plant’s various vehicles. “We wash on average around 200 vehicles that show higher than normal radiation levels,” he told IPS.

Wearing heavy protective gear and checked daily for radiation exposure, Sato says he worries about the effects of radiation on his health but is determined to keep working.

“The main workers are battling heavier risks than myself so I try not to think of the risks I face,” he explained, pointing to colleagues working directly on the repair of the Fukushima reactors.

Radiation monitoring indicates Sato is exposed to around 20 microsieverts daily, roughly the same amount of radiation emitted by a single X-ray, and far less than the official danger limit of one millimeter which is equivalent to 100 microsieverts. But Sato acknowledges the threat posed by accumulated exposure to radiation.

Analysts say workers like Sato represent the commitment now shouldered by workers of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) at the Fukushima reactors as well as in the company’s other subsidiaries. These workers have committed to repairing the damaged plant and stopping radiation leaks.

“They face huge pressure mentally and physically,” explained Professor Takeshi Tanigawa, an expert on social medicine at Ehime University who has been spearheading advocacy for better working conditions for TEPCO employees in Fukushima.

He told IPS that his recent surveys show workers grappling with high levels of stress as a result of tough working conditions that include long shifts and poor living standards. Other indicators point to simmering personal guilt for the radiation contamination the plant inflicted on residents of surrounding areas.

“The evidence I have collected has pressured TEPCO to ease some of the workers’ difficulties such as providing them with fresh vegetables and better bedding to help them have a good night’s rest. There is also a doctor on call to provide them with medical counseling,” he said.

The plight of Japan’s nuclear workers has grabbed the public limelight this past month, and they have been portrayed as symbols of national resilience, on the one hand, and also evidence of the downside of the country’s post-war economic miracle, on the other.

This week, the Labor Ministry reported that 102 workers have been exposed to more radiation—over 250 millisieverts—than the limits stipulated by the government, leading to the recall of these men from the plant.

TEPCO is now reporting a shortage of workers in Fukushima; more than 2,000 employees currently work in the reactors. High radiation inside the buildings has severely hampered rehabilitation efforts with workers permitted to enter for stints of as short as 15 minutes.

Professor Katsuhiko Ishibashi, a seismologist from Kobe University, has long been an advocate against Japan’s nuclear power policy, which he describes as a “doctrine.” Ishibashi said, “The alarming situation in Fukushima has finally revealed that all nuclear plants in Japan are built on fault lines and thus have the possibility of ending up with a major accident due to tsunami.”

Other experts also point to root causes that brought about the policy, exposing a fundamentally flawed system based on the close collaboration among bureaucrats, power companies and politicians who have resisted opposition to the national nuclear policy.
“Building nuclear power plants was considered a pillar of Japan’s post-war economic growth and was facilitated by powerful elites…who gained most from the policy. Everybody else just had to fall in line,” said Shigeaki Koga, author of the bestselling book “The Collapse of Japan’s Central Administration”.

In a press briefing this week, Koga noted that Fukushima is a rallying point for reforms and underscores the need for Japan to foster healthy, transparent competition among independent entities, if Japan is to develop as a safer and richer country.

Still, critics acknowledge that pursuing change is not easy in Japan where the disaster has caused a political stalemate. Prime Minister Naoto Kan is set to resign this summer amid increasing political bickering between parties, with the electorate divided between yearning for a strong leadership and calls for a major overhaul of the system.

In the meantime, volunteers are stepping up to help address the nuclear problem. A case in point is the growing popularity of the so-called “suicide corps” formed by retired engineer Yasuteru Yamada and composed of men over 60 years old who are willing to work in the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant.

More than 300 people have signed up, Yamada told IPS. His group, he said, “is ready to work in any job whether inside the contaminated plant, or clearing debris in the area. We need to help out the country at the moment,” he said.