Cut-price clean-up after nuclear disaster takes devastating toll on people employed

Humans clear and contain the lingering radioactive mess

Like millions of Japanese workers, Kai Watanabe (30) packs a lunch for work every morning. Unlike most, he also carries an electronic radiation counter.

Several days a week, he pulls on a Hazmat (hazardous materials) suit, dons a mask and heads for the ruined Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, where he monitors tanks full of highly toxic water for leaks. For a job with potentially serious consequences on his health, he is paid 15,000 yen (about €113) a day.

Relatively little is known about the people who work at the Daiichi plant. Operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco) severely rations interviews with its full-time staff. Contract workers such as Watanabe, employed by one of dozens of subcontractors, rarely talk to journalists because they fear for their jobs. Watanabe insists on a pseudonym for interviews.

Call of duty
He bears the imprint of Japan's 30-month-old nuclear disaster. On March 11th, 2011, Watanabe fled the six-reactor plant after it was struck by a powerful earthquake, followed by a 15m tsunami that knocked out its vital cooling system. Remarkably, he returned the same month to bring the plant under control.

“I felt it was my duty,” he recalls.

Born and raised in the town of Okuma, a few miles away, Watanabe’s family are nuclear refugees. His mother and father left the home he shared with them on March 12th and now live and work in Iwaki, 34km south of the plant. He doesn’t believe they will ever return. Like Pripyat, the Ukrainian town evacuated after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, Okuma is a nuclear ghost town.

Watanabe laboured through the disaster at the Daiichi plant until he reached his annual limit for radiation exposure. He then cycled through the remaining jobs for nuclear workers in Fukushima, ending up with a decontamination crew, cleaning up the radiation that poisoned his home. The irony wasn’t lost on him but he says he bears no grudges. “We have to fix the mess we made.”

Clean-up workers in Fukushima make about €100 a day. Most are employed on short-term contracts. It seemed Watanabe had reached the bottom of the pile for a qualified nuclear maintenance engineer, but worse was to come. Earlier this year, he was made redundant. Tepco no longer had money to pay subcontractors, he says. (Tepco declined to comment on this allegation.)

If it seems odd that the utility is running out of cash to clean up from the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, that’s because it is, says Watanabe.

“Every penny the company spends in Fukushima is a loss. So the mentality is to save as much as possible, not to ensure good conditions and safety for workers.”

Though jointly run by the government since 2012, Tepco still trades on the stock exchange and bleeds cash as it struggles to decommission the Daiichi plant.

Its astonishing penny-pinching became evident during the summer, when the company revealed it was relying on a skeleton crew to monitor a huge plantation of 1,000-ton makeshift water tanks for leaks. Instead of installing gauges, engineers were checking 1,000 tanks visually by standing on top of them.

Japan’s nuclear regulator said the leak was serious enough to warrant level three on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (Fukushima and Chernobyl were level seven).

More problematically for Japan, the revelation triggered a political furore just as Tokyo, 230km from the plant, made its final pitch to host the 2020 Olympics. Amid fears that Fukushima could torpedo Japan’s bid, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe found an extra €350 million to plug the leaks at the plant.

In a controversial speech to the International Olympic Committee in Buenos Aires, Abe told the world to stop worrying.

“Let me assure you the situation is under control,” he said, advising committee delegates to read “past the headlines and look at the facts”.

Contaminated groundwater
For Watanabe, the pledge was important. A few days later, he got a call from his subcontractor. Flush with new cash, Tepco was now hiring nearly 100 men to monitor those leaking tanks.

The utility also said it would finally install gauges on about one-third of the most vulnerable water tanks, and build a giant artificial wall to stop contaminated groundwater from reaching the Pacific.

So Watanabe has a job again, for now. Some time soon, he will have absorbed 50 millisieverts of radiation – twice the annual recommended dose for nuclear workers, and then he will have to reconsider his options.

As a nuclear refugee, he gets free health treatment but no life insurance – he has been told that’s his responsibility.

He is not married, and doubts he ever will be: “I would have to confess what I did, and what woman would accept it?”

Eventually, he believes, Tepco and the government will run out of people to do what he does. “What will they do then?”

David McNeill

David McNeill

David McNeill, a contributor to The Irish Times, is based in Tokyo