Is any job worth this risk? I speak to Fukushima clear-up workers
Why on earth would anyone choose to work at what’s left of the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power station? The job description probably goes something like this:
- must spend day in full body suit, gloves, thick rubber boots and full-facial mask
- must endure extremely high temperatures in aforementioned suits
- must work on badly damaged site containing the remains of 4 crippled nuclear reactors
- must brave dangerously high levels of radiation (you may feel like you a suffocating in full-facial mask but no, you cannot take it off).
This blindingly obvious question was firmly in my mind when we travelled to Iwaki City – a mid-sized, non-descript sort of place that now finds itself uncomfortably close to the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. Many of its residents have now evacuated, fearing the radioactive leaks that continue to spew from the plant. Many of the 3,000 workers now employed in clean-up operations at the plant have taken their place, cramming the local hotels and renting otherwise deserted family homes.
These employment “opportunities” are an unfortunate by-product of Japan’s great earthquake and tsunami. The folks at the “Tokyo Electric Power Company” (TEPCO), built a 5.7m seawall to protect the complex from natural disasters – but the tsunami wave was 13.1 m high. It knocked out the normal and emergency power systems, leaving the nuclear reactors to overheat. Three of Fukushima’s six reactors went into “full melt-down”. Four suffered hydrogen explosions which blew apart their “containment vessels”. TEPCO and 600-odd sub-contracted companies are now busy trying to stabilize the radioactive, rubble-filled remains.
Employees are under strict instructions not to speak to journalists – and supervisors from their various employers keep an active eye on them when they return to Iwaki in the evening. We were thrown out of one hotel when we had the audacity to approach a group of men employed to clear rubble from the site. Yet there were others who wanted to talk – albeit anonymously. Their working conditions I asked? Terrible, they said: “a burning-hell”, “terrifying” and “very troubling” – phrases I recorded in my notebook. But I wasn’t getting any closer to answering my question – why work there?
Money is certainly the big motivator. Japan has been mired in recession for decades and the country’s 54 nuclear power plants have long provided work to low or non-skilled, itinerant workers. Fukushima is no different – although it is much more dangerous.
A Channel 4 News researcher rang a number on a “jobs-available” poster that we found plastered on a wall in Iwaki. “What sort of experience do you have,” said the man on the phone to our researcher. “Well I’ve done some car maintenance,” said our researcher. “Good enough,” said the man, presumably one of the 600 “subcontractors” engaged by TEPCO. Our researcher asked about the daily rate. “Six-thousand yen (£50),” he said. That quickly went up to 8,500 yen (£67) as our researcher hummed and hawed a bit. But there was something special on offer said the subcontractor. “You can earn 40,000 yen (£315) an hour if you want, but what you have to do is dangerous.” We didn’t find out what that job entailed but it probably involved some sort of increased risk of radiation exposure.
One man told us he had come out of “a sense of duty” and there were others who were simply told by their employers that they had to work at Fukushima. “Could you refuse?” I asked one technician. “Well, that would put you in a very uncomfortable position,” he said before adding, “Japanese workers are very obedient.”
If they don’t challenge their superiors in the workplace, what do these men (and we didn’t meet any women working at the plant) tell their loved ones at home? Well, it turns out some of them don’t actually tell their wives and children what they’re up to. “Wives just get panicked,” said one. “It is better just to say that I’m working on the clean-up (of the coast) in Myagi,” he added. Another employee described how his mother took the news. “She was totally shocked – but she didn’t stop me. (My family) are very worried about me – about the heat and my health and radiation exposure.”
TEPCO says it hopes to have the facility stabilized – with the reactors put into “cold shutdown” – by January. Yet the scale and complexity of the challenge is unprecedented because of the number of reactors involved – nobody we spoke to in Iwaki seemed to think TEPCO would stick to its schedule. If it all goes to plan however, they’ll begin the task of “entombing” the complex next year – a sort of “deep storage” that will provide plenty more “employment opportunities” for years to come.
It’s a long-term form of job security I suppose – the containment and maintenance of highly toxic materials that will take thousands of years to decompose. But is any job worth these sorts of risks? Workers told us they couldn’t afford to be choosey about where they take jobs – but I got the distinct impression the majority wished it was somewhere else.