Fighting for Fukushima: the unsung heroes of Japan’s nuclear disaster

Media have focused on radiation danger but stress and low pay are bigger issues

Like many other men, Shinya Yamada was glad of the work at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Because he toiled close to its wrecked reactors, his hours were limited and the money was okay. Above all, the on-site camaraderie made him feel he was on an important mission. Today, he is angry about the leukaemia he blames on his job.

Yamada, who was employed as a welder at the plant from October 2012 to December 2013, is the first and so far only Fukushima worker awarded workplace compensation. Several more cases are pending, says Japan’s health ministry, which accepted Yamada’s claim, despite denying a definite causal link between the job and his cancer.

Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco), operator of Daiichi, called into battle a reserve army of workers and subcontractors after the March 2011 triple meltdown. In the five years since, about 46,000 people have worked at the plant. Tens of thousands more are spread out across Fukushima detoxifying the countryside from the impact of the fallout that fell in the days after the meltdown began.

Disposable workers

While the health risks of radiation have got most media attention, workers are far more likely to be afflicted by lifestyle diseases, say experts. Alcoholism, poor diets and stress are rife. Many men, hired part-time by a labyrinth of subcontractors, lack health insurance. Some end up on welfare or homeless, says

Hiroyuki Watanabe

, a local politician in

Iwaki

, one of the closest cities to the plant. “Workers are being used and disposed of.”

Watanabe says Iwaki has to bear the consequences: many former Fukushima employees in his constituency are on welfare. Sex workers have arrived to cater to the large transient workforce. Drunken fights and petty crimes keep the police busy at weekends. “Those people are not originally from Iwaki, but the city has to deal with this social phenomenon.”

Pay for unskilled employees at the plant can reportedly be as low as 6,000 yen (€47) per day, although some receive up to six times that. Decontamination workers, who move house by house in towns and villages around Fukushima and scrape and bag soil from farms and gardens, receive as little as 5,400 yen a day, plus 10,000 yen “danger money”, paid by the state.

Companies often fail to pass on the money, says Takeshi Katsura, an Iwaki-based union leader: Yakuza gangsters are heavily involved in the clean-up. "People who complain are sometimes threatened with violence," he says.

Watanabe accepts that working conditions have been improving. Radiation levels in some areas of the plant have fallen to a point where masks and protective clothing are no longer needed, though engineers near the badly damaged reactors 1, 2 and 3 wear tungsten vests to protect their internal organs from exposure. Rest places, diners and a new convenience store have been set up onsite. The workforce is getting younger, he says. “There used to be a fair number of workers who were 65 or over.”

Fukushima’s disabled reactors have inspired terabytes of sweaty commentary and a string of apocalyptic warnings. Former employees, however, say tedium, exhaustion and heat are the biggest problems.

Kazuto Tatsuta, a former Daiichi worker who had drawn a series of bestselling manga comic books about his experiences, says he wanted to describe the mundane grind of life onsite, and the men who keep the decades-long decommissioning humming. "I felt the media was exaggerating what was going on," he says, describing his style as "reportage".

“Everyone concentrates on the supposedly miserable experiences of the workers but when I was there I saw men mostly happy to be there.”

Tatsuta (who uses a pseudonym) says his biggest gripe about life at Daiichi was how crowded it was – 7,000 workers labour daily on the 864-acre site. He worries little about radiation. “Half of all Japanese will get cancer anyway, so how can you tell?” he asks. “It’s just a job and like all jobs there are risks and problems.”

Heatstroke

In mid-March, the fifth anniversary of the disaster, the weather is still cool in Fukushima. But in summer, working in Hazmat suits, layers of gloves and full-face masks, heat stroke is a constant hazard, says Kai Watanabe, another former Daiichi engineer. Men are recycled off the plant into other jobs if they become ill or exceed the limits of their exposure to radiation.

According to Tepco, more than 15,000 workers have received doses exceeding 10 millisieverts a year, well below the typical worldwide general limit of 20 millisieverts. Health ministry officials say there is no proven link between cancer and radiation exposure below 100 millisieverts a year.

Yamada, however, was exposed to just 19.8 millisieverts, most of it at Fukushima Daiichi.

“The reason why I got cancer was because I worked at the plant and was exposed to radiation,” he says. “I cannot think of other reasons. My DNA tests did not show any signs of genetic abnormalities that might have led to leukaemia.”

His illness is currently in remission, but he takes antimicrobial drugs and is tested every two months for signs that the disease is returning. He says he is one of just 14 people awarded workplace compensation for radiation-induced illnesses in Japan since 1976. "There must have been many, many more cases but their claims were rejected."

Yamada says he feels deceived that he was not told any of this, or that his former employers did not warn him that life insurance companies do not offer coverage to people who work at nuclear facilities. Watanabe is more sanguine. Many men, especially the low skilled are happy to work in Fukushima, he says. “It has produced a lot of jobs. But the worst thing is the sense that you are disposable.”

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